Leah Browning
PUNCH

by Leah Browning


First, there’s an ultrasound.  Or, no, that’s not the beginning.  First, there’s a forgettable
night with your husband.  You’ve been married eight years already and the spark is
gone—it’s more than gone—its absence is so huge that it’s become a presence in and
of itself.  

But you’re not thinking about that anymore.  You want a baby now.  You’re like the Marisa
Tomei character in
My Cousin Vinny where she’s standing on the porch in a black
bodysuit saying, “My biological clock is ticking like this,” and pounding the wooden
boards with her foot.  The main difference is that you’re not going to win an Academy
Award for all the nights you’ve sat up in bed trying to wheedle your husband into
agreeing that you should go off the pill.

["Punch" is continued in
Halfway Down the Stairs.]


"Punch"
Copyright © 2010 by Leah Browning
First published in
Halfway Down the Stairs, Issue 4.2 (September 2011), www.halfwaydownthestairs.net.







EAR MITES

by Leah Browning


The vet tells you that the kitten has ear mites.  She has swabbed the kitten's ear with a Q-
tip, and she holds the stick out so you can see: it's covered with little blackish dots.

"That's their waste," she says, and clucks sympathetically as the kitten shakes his head
and flicks at his ear with one paw.  "Has he been doing this a lot?"

"No," you say. "I don't think so."  But now that she's pointed it out, the kitten seems to do
nothing but flick his ears.  You feel itchy just looking at him.

"I can't believe that the humane society missed this," the vet says.

When you get home, your boyfriend is at the table eating breakfast.  He looks up and
says, "How'd it go?"

"Raging case of ear mites," you say.  You open the carrier slightly and leave it in the
bathroom, shutting the door on your way out.  "Don't touch him.  The medicine needs to
dry."

"Are mites contagious?" your boyfriend asks.  "Geez, Molly, you let him sleep on the bed."

You shake your head.  "To other cats, not to us."  Still, while the kitten's in the bathroom,
you strip the bed and wash the sheets in hot water.

Your boyfriend leaves for work, pretending to check your scalp for nits as he kisses you
goodbye.  You grimace but say nothing.  He's been a good sport since you brought the
kitten home from the shelter.

Two years have passed since your husband's death, and the twinge you felt at the sight
of the tiny face behind glass seemed like proof: a maternal instinct, long dormant, slowly
ticking to life.  Now you're not so sure.

After a moment, you hear the sound of claws, a frantic scratching at the bathroom door.  
You busy yourself with other things.  You wait.  


"Ear Mites"
Copyright © 2006 by Leah Browning
First published in
Brink Magazine (October 2007), www.brinklit.com.







A PARTY LIKE THIS

by Leah Browning


On the last night of the conference, all the presenting writers who were still in town had a
party in one of the hotel’s double suites.  Geoff drank two beers and then went outside
on the balcony for a cigarette.  They were on the sixth floor, overlooking the water.  It was
windy, though, and he kept having trouble with the matches.

He was about to go back inside when one of the women opened the sliding glass door
and poked her head out.  “How is it?” she asked.  “Cold?”

Geoff shrugged.  She was one of those women who can’t seem to talk without flirting.  
He’d made that mistake before and he’d be damned if he’d do it again.

She came outside anyway, wearing a shiny, low-cut dress and a pair of very high heels.  
She was carrying a glass of white wine, and she shivered theatrically, but without spilling
the wine.  “Why didn’t you warn me?”

There wasn’t any good response to that, so Geoff didn’t bother trying to think of one.

["A Party Like This" is continued in
The Citron Review.]


"A Party Like This"
Copyright © 2011 by Leah Browning  
First published in
The Citron Review (Summer 2012), http://thecitronreview.wordpress.com/.







PICK YOUR OWN

by Leah Browning


On the first weekend after the surgery, I took my niece to a farm to pick peaches.  She
was nine years old and liable to ask all manner of uncomfortable questions, so I had
braced myself for the worst, but she didn’t seem fazed by my appearance.

We parked the car and walked out toward the orchard.  A woman wearing a big sun hat
was sitting at a folding table, and she gave Heidi a silver bucket for our peaches.

The trees were in neat rows, and we walked past the ones that had already been
plucked clean.  The ground was covered with dead leaves and rotten fruit, one peach
after another broken and mottled by bird bites.

Heidi directed me to a more remote corner of the orchard.  She wasn’t very tall, but she
could reach the lowest branches.

I tried to help, but I was having trouble with my new hands: the fingers didn’t bend the
way my old ones had.  There seemed to be something wrong with the joints, which were
too stiff, but I knew that I needed to be patient.  The doctor had said that it would take
some time to break them in.  He had a shoe on the desk in his office, and he picked it up
and bent the sole back and forth to demonstrate.

The sun was bothering me, too, and I couldn’t seem to get the hang of blinking.  The
new eyeballs were just a bit bigger than my old ones, and it took more effort to open and
close my eyelids than I was used to.

["Pick Your Own" is continued in
Salome Magazine.]


"Pick Your Own"
Copyright © 2012 by Leah Browning  
First published in
Salome Magazine (February 11, 2013), www.salomemagazine.com.







TOUCH

by Leah Browning


Gareth had been on his feet all day.  He'd even worked over lunch, on a walk-in with a
sad story.  For some reason, he could never say no to women like that.

It was dark by the time he left the salon.  He hurried past the windows of the other shops
on the street.  Winter had come early, and he was still wearing an old denim jacket.

The lights were off in his apartment, so Gareth knew that his roommate hadn't come
home yet.  He made himself a plate of scrambled eggs and two slices of toast with
butter and cherry jam, and he ate reading the newspaper.

If his roommate had been there, he would have said that Gareth was living his life
backwards, starting with dinner for breakfast and ending with breakfast for dinner.  But
his roommate wasn't there...

["Touch" is continued in
Wigleaf.]


"Touch"
Copyright © 2011 by Leah Browning  
First published in
Wigleaf (September 3, 2012), http://wigleaf.com.







ALL THESE QUESTIONS  

by Leah Browning


When you tell people that you have all boys, they want to know if you tried for a girl. If you
are still trying.

Once, in line at the grocery store, a woman said to me, “Why don’t you just quit already.”

When you tell people that your oldest son is sixteen, they want to know how old you are. If
you’re as young as you look. When I tell them that I’m thirty-three, I have to look away
while they furrow their brows. I know they’re thinking it through; they’re doing the math.

When you tell people that your oldest son is sixteen and your youngest son is almost a
year old, they want to know if all your kids have the same dad. Sometimes they ask
outright, which still surprises me, even though it seems like it shouldn’t by now.
Sometimes all the kids are with me—one with skin the color of café au lait, another with
my pale, freckled skin, skin that was the bane of my existence at one point, skin that
couldn’t hold a tan to save its life—and then people don’t even ask. They just look from
one kid to another and purse up their mouths.

["All These Questions" is continued in
Fiction365.]


"All These Questions"
Copyright © 2011 by Leah Browning
First published in
Fiction365 (February 6, 2012), www.fiction365.com.







BECAUSE I DIDN'T NOTICE THE LITTLE SIGNS (PART 1)  

by Leah Browning


...On the screen in front of us, the dying mother retches into a plastic trash can before
raising her head weakly and asking for water.

Leaning close to me, my mother twists her mouth into a frown. “I don’t like this,” she
says in a loud voice.

I try to shush her. I am too embarrassed to look in the direction of the woman sitting on
her other side. I hope she didn’t hear.

“The acting is terrible,” my mother complains.

“Shhh! It’s not acting,” I whisper. “This is a documentary.”

My mother clicks her tongue. “Well, it’s awful.”


["Because I Didn't Notice the Little Signs (Part 1)," the first of a sequence of three short
stories, is continued in
971 MENU.]


"Because I Didn't Notice the Little Signs (Part 1)," "Allegiance (Part 2)," and "A Little Luck (Part 3)," a
sequence of three short stories
Copyright © 2011 by Leah Browning
First published in
971 MENU (December 2011), www.971menu.com.







STRANGE MEN IN BARS  

by Leah Browning


Jennifer is sitting alone, nursing a 7UP and squinting across a dim, smoky motel lounge
at her mother.  It's a Thursday night around ten o'clock, and Mallory's already had three
Black Russians and a vodka tonic. The effect of this combination is that Jennifer's 43-
year-old mother—a woman who works in a bank and wears expensive tailored suits and
strings of pearls, who speaks in a low, carefully modulated voice about stock options at
the breakfast table—is sliding around a dance floor with a drunk man from the bar, his
arms knotted around her waist and his face buried in her neck.  It's a sickening sight, yet
Jennifer is unable to look away.

The band takes a five-minute break, but Mallory and her partner go on dancing for a few
seconds after the music stops, swaying to some rhythm only they can hear.  At last they
break apart, and the man pats her arm clumsily before lurching away.

For a moment, Jennifer thinks she sees a look of recognition; she thinks that Mallory
realizes how crazy this is.  But then Mallory turns and disappears through the swinging
doors at the back of the room.

["Strange Men in Bars" is continued in
42opus.]


"Strange Men in Bars"
Copyright © 2005 by Leah Browning
First published in
42opus, Vol. 7, No. 2 (June 14, 2007), www.42opus.com.







THE COSTUME WEDDING

by Leah Browning


Jennifer flew all the way to Albuquerque with the dress in dry cleaner’s plastic draped
across her lap.  Still, when she got to the hotel, she almost lost her nerve and went to the
wedding in the black slacks she had worn on the plane.

She had slipped into the dress and then opened the bathroom door before unzipping
her makeup case.  “Don’t you think it’s too much?” she asked after a few minutes,
leaning toward her own reflection and catching her boyfriend’s eye in the bathroom
mirror.

Barry sat on the edge of the bed in a pirate costume.  He was eating macadamia nuts
out of a glass jar and watching as she daubed rouge onto her cheeks with a big brush.  
He shook his head.

It was a flapper’s dress from the 1920s: sleeveless, off-white, and pencil-thin, with
intricate white beadwork and a thick satiny fringe at the hem.  Her grandmother had
produced it during Thanksgiving dinner, along with silk stockings and a bell-shaped hat
sewn from off-white felt.

“Oh, I couldn’t,” Jennifer had protested.  Now she dutifully pulled the cloche hat over her
long dark hair, which fell past her shoulder blades and ruined the period look, but it
couldn’t be helped.  Barry had found her a brown bobbed wig, but it was still on her
bureau at home.  Jennifer hadn’t remembered it until they were in line at the airport
terminal.

["The Costume Wedding" is continued in
Halfway Down the Stairs.]


"The Costume Wedding"
Copyright © 2008 by Leah Browning
First published in
Halfway Down the Stairs (December 2012), www.halfwaydownthestairs.net.







SCARS

by Leah Browning


For the entire first year of your marriage, you woke before he did and you watched him
sleep.  His right eyebrow was dissected by a sliver of pale flesh, which made him look
young and vulnerable.  When he was four, walking down the stairs with a section of
metal railroad track in one hand, he tripped and fell onto it.  His mother had panicked at
the sight of all the blood and took him out for ice cream, furtively, guiltily, after the
emergency room and the sturdy-looking black stitches.  She had left him alone for just a
second to go to the store—he was napping, and she needed eggs—she was baking
him cookies, for god’s sake!  She was a good mother!  And when she got back, damp
with  perspiration—because she had been running, she was hurrying as fast as she
could—he was kneeling at the bottom of the stairs, his face a mess of blood and tears
and mucus.  When his mother drinks, she will tell this story obsessively, reliving the
moment she walked up the front steps, the sound of sobbing, the way her hand shook
so badly that she struggled to fit the key into the lock.  Her son was in his late twenties,
with a steady job and a wife, the blood wiped away, the damage almost undone, a good
man.  So you pitied her, with her vodka and sad memories, and in those early mornings,
you, you foolish newlywed girl, kissed him gently and thought,
I will never hurt you like
that
.


"Scars"
Copyright © 2006 by Leah Browning
First published in
The Flash-Flood, No. 6 (January 2007), and reprinted in Wigleaf (January 2008),
www.wigleaf.com.







FLASH

by Leah Browning


Six months before he left, Andrew gave me a diamond tennis bracelet, and I wore that
thing everywhere.  I wore it when we went to the opera, I flashed it at that bitch Lisa
Bramsky at the PTA meeting, I wore it to the goddamn dry cleaner’s when I went to pick
up Andrew’s suits.  I wanted everybody to know that the rumors weren’t true.   

["Flash" is continued
here.]


"Flash"
Copyright © 2009 by Leah Browning
First published in
apt, Issue 23 (February 2010), http://apt.aforementionedproductions.com.







PAPER LIFE

by Leah Browning


Maija sat at the kitchen table cutting long rows of paper dolls, all connected at the tips of
their outstretched fingers and the flowing points of their skirts.  Snips of white paper fell
onto the surface of the table as she worked.  She had found a pair of sharp silver
scissors in the junk drawer, buried in a nest of string and tape and coils of postage
stamps.  There was also a Polaroid of my mother without her wig, after the
chemotherapy.  Maija had not commented on the photograph.  

In the fading light from the kitchen window, she folded fine pleats in the paper and cut.  
The only other sound in the room was the gold clicking of the clock’s second hand
completing its revolutions.  I hadn’t spoken in days.  Maija didn’t look at me, only went on
cutting and cutting.  There were white vines, a flock of birds, wisps of paper falling to the
table.  Everything around us—the avocado appliances; the navy blue wallpaper, with its
pattern of pale pink flowers and green pears—began to disappear under the snowfall
from the scissors.    

She cut out a dress, a simple white sheath, and slipped it on over her school uniform.  I
had a sharp desire to see her bare skin, then, to go back in time a few weeks, but we
remained in the house in the kitchen, with my father’s leather shoes lined up at the
door.  Maija turned the paper this way and that, fashioning clothes for me, I saw.  She set
down the scissors and dressed me tenderly, easing my wrists through the sleeves and
pressing each paper button through the proper paper buttonhole.  

The house was the last thing she made, a paper replica of my house, with white paper
versions of the stove and refrigerator and ticking, ticking clock.  Maija took my hand, and
pulled me inside the paper cuttings.  Our white paper knapsacks lay on the paper floor,
and paper scissors lay on the paper table, and I knew that if I opened the paper cabinets
I would find paper dishes.  Almost everything was still in its place.

“Stay here with me,” Maija said, and pressed her cheek to mine.  Her skin carried the
faint scent of fresh snow and peach soap.  I closed my eyes for the first time in three
days and let her wrap her arms around me.  She held on, she held me close, and I was
almost able to forget, for a moment, my mother’s absence at the breakfast table, my
father’s weary silence.  All I felt was Maija’s cheek on my cheek, the warmth of her skin,
and then I lifted my arms, I put my arms around her, too; I clung to her, and I didn’t open
my eyes, even as I felt the house fall softly around us like so many paper flowers.


"Paper Life"
Copyright © 2008 by Leah Browning
First published in
Eclectic Flash (January 2010), www.eclecticflash.com.







ANESTHESIA

by Leah Browning


Sascha took the bus to the Reid Park Zoo to see the polar bears.  It was wintertime, but
there was no snow in Tucson.  He watched the water of the bears’ pool through a large
pane of glass.

["Anesthesia" is continued in
971 MENU.]


"Anesthesia"
Copyright © 2007 by Leah Browning
First published in
971 MENU (June 2007), www.971menu.com.







BAD NEWS

by Leah Browning


My father asked if I wanted to walk around the corner to the drugstore and get an ice
cream cone.  It has always been his way of sweetening a difficult moment.  To this day, I
can’t look at a tub of mint chocolate chip without feeling my stomach tighten.    

It was the day after Thanksgiving, a balmy November afternoon, and as we walked my
father asked if I had a light.  I hadn’t smoked in almost ten years, but I only shrugged and
shook my head.  “Sorry.”   

He was a big bear of a man, and he clasped my shoulder affectionately, his big thick
fingers as warm as a paw.  This was my first visit in several months.  I was waiting for
him to poke himself in the chest and say, “The old ticker’s going,” or “Your mom’s been
having some trouble with her foot again.”   

A year earlier they’d purchased a stackable front-loading washer and dryer, and the dryer
hadn’t been installed properly.  It had fallen on her as the washer finished the spin cycle
on a load of whites.   

But my father only admired the trees, their bare arms outstretched.  “Can you believe that
it will all start over again?” he asked, referring I supposed to the spring, which seemed a
million years away.  

I broke into a run, passing the corner where we should have turned to go to the
drugstore, and plowing across the street before the light turned green.  “Chris!” my father
yelled behind me.  “Where are you going?”  

I didn’t turn, just kept running until my breath came in short ragged gasps and my leg
muscles burned.  I felt old, weak.  There was no one around.  I sat on a stretch of grass
next to the sidewalk and leaned back against a peeling brown fence.    

Cheryl had called me after eleven o’clock the night before, from her parents’ house in
Vermont.  “You’re going to get me grounded,” I had whispered into the phone, and she’d
laughed.  I wanted to pull her hand over hand through the phone wires just then, lay her
flat on the twin bed I’d had since middle school and press my face against the damp V
where her legs met.   

My father’s face was flushed by the time he caught up, and he flopped down on the
grass next to me.  “What was that all about?” he asked.   

“I don’t want to know,” I said.  “Whatever it is, I don’t want to know.”  There were so many
possible strands leading from this moment, so many twists and false starts and bad
turns.    

My father nodded, looking thoughtful.  His thick gray hair was damp along the sides of
his face.  My mother would have a hysterectomy less than a week later, and I would take
a dozen yellow roses to the hospital.   

But sitting on the grass outside on the day after Thanksgiving, he just nodded.  He said,
“Let’s go home,” and pretended to let me pull him to his feet.   


"Bad News"
Copyright © 2007 by Leah Browning
First published in
Clapboard House, Issue 2 (January 2008), www.clapboardjournal.com.







THE BALLET RECITAL

by Leah Browning


His new girlfriend brings Paige to the rehearsal.  When they arrive, Paige is already
wearing her costume, a hot pink leotard with a matching pink skirt.  The skirt and the
wing-like sleeves of the leotard are a frothy mixture of netting and silver sequins.

Paige is skipping, but she breaks into a run when she sees me, squealing, "Mommy!"

I have been standing at the back of the makeshift dressing room, chatting with a couple
of the other mothers.  I kneel, and Paige barrels into my arms.  Her long blond hair is
damp and carries the scent of shampoo.

She breaks away from me and I stand, brushing off the knees of my slacks.  Her father's
girlfriend, Maxine, is hanging back, looking ill at ease.  Paige runs back to her and says,
"Come on," pulling her toward an empty seat.  "I need to put on my ballet slippers."

Maxine sits obligingly, and Paige digs through the plastic grocery bag in Maxine's hand.  
We are in the theatre wing of the local high school, in a practice room behind the stage
of the auditorium.  Five rows of chairs, one for each age group of Paige's ballet school,
are lined up like an expectant audience, facing the door.

I have only met Maxine once, when I went to Mark's house to collect Paige for the
weekend.  I walk closer to them and lean forward.  "How are you, Maxine?" I ask.  This
morning I woke late, a luxury, and I am feeling magnanimous, larger than life.

["The Ballet Recital" is continued in
Literary Mama.]


"The Ballet Recital"
Copyright © 2002 by Leah Browning
First published in
Literary Mama (March 8, 2006), www.literarymama.com.







A LITTLE TROUBLE

by Leah Browning


She invited him over for dinner, and when he got there he found that she had made only
potatoes: mashed, fried, stuffed, creamed, browned, sautéed, and scalloped,
painstakingly arranged on their grandmother’s best china on the white lace tablecloth
used only for family weddings

His sister had always been a steady sort of person, dependable.  It startled him to find
her in her good blue dress and heels, wringing her hands over a table set with flowers,
candles, wine, and seven different kinds of potatoes.

“Oh, Richard, do you think I made enough?” was all she said when she looked up and
noticed him standing in the entryway from the living room.

The following night, he was awakened by a staccato series of taps on his front door.  He
found her on the step, bracing her hat as if against a strong wind.  A pot of chicken soup
was cradled in her free arm.

“There’s a fresh loaf of bread in the car,” she told him as she breezed into the house.  
She was forty-six years old, six years his senior, and she still had more energy than he
did.  He was left holding the door in his ragged plaid bathrobe and slippers, staring after
her doubtfully.  “We’ll have you feeling better in no time,” she called from the kitchen.  

["A Little Trouble" is continued
here.]


"A Little Trouble" (originally published as "The Care Giver")
Copyright © 2003 by Leah Browning
First published in
The Saint Ann's Review, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Summer/Fall 2004), pp. 26-33.
Leah Browning
Fiction — Samples