by JAMIE CUNNINGHAM | 1st Place, student prose contest

Karen entered the principal’s office in a flurry. The call from school had been frustratingly vague and she’d spent the drive across town trying to govern her emotions. Her daughter wasn’t hurt; she knew that much at least. Still, it’s never a good thing when the school calls you in the middle of the day. Karen gave the secretary a harried look and the secretary pointed to an open door.

Principal Brown was at her desk gazing at some sheets of paper while chewing on the end of a ballpoint pen. Mrs. Brown was an aging free spirit in her late fifties with frizzy gray hair, married to a sculptor, and she too often paired thick woolen socks with sandals. Privately, Karen sometimes wondered how such a bohemian could ever become a school administrator. Mrs. Brown was so engrossed in her reading that she didn’t notice Karen’s entry.

Karen scanned the room and found her daughter seated at one corner of the desk, hunkered over a crossword puzzle. Thankfully, whatever prompted the call didn’t appear to be a gory tragedy and Karen felt the tension in her face diminish some. The girl noticed her mother.

“Oh, hey Mom. What’s a six-letter word for, ‘a type of computer’?

Though she had always been a bright precocious child, lately Hanna was becoming a real handful, full of her pretensions. Eleven going on forty. A transformation that had begun in earnest a couple years ago. Ever since, well, Karen just hoped Hanna did not follow in her older sister’s troubled footsteps.

“Hello, Mrs. Ferguson,” Principal Brown greeted brightly. “Please, have a seat.”

Karen eased into the chair next to her daughter. Hanna, her tongue protruding from her pale lips as she concentrated on her crossword, seemed wholly unconcerned about the proceedings. She pointed to her puzzle and said, “Begins with an L.

“Is everything okay?” Karen tentatively asked the principal. “Your secretary didn’t really say much over the phone. Just said I needed to come here.”

“Everyone is fine,” Mrs. Brown assured the nervous mother with a smile that showed far too much gum for Karen’s taste. “No one is in trouble. I just wanted to talk with you.”

“Don’t believe her, Mom,” Hanna said. “That’s the same line she used to get me in here.”

“Today was Career Day in Hanna’s class,” the principal continued. “Each student did a project about occupations. Some did reports about their parent’s jobs. Others gave presentations about what they want to do when they grow up. May I ask, what do you do for a living?”

“Me? I. . . I sell real estate part-time,” Karen answered while looking to Hanna for help. She couldn’t recall her daughter ever mentioning Career Day.

“Hm. Well it seems Hanna has decided to become a stand-up comedian when she grows up.”

Hanna suddenly seemed evermore focused on her crossword, putting her little face close to the paper.

“Comedian?” Karen remarked; puzzled. This was surprising news to her. “There must be some mistake.”

“See for yourself.” Mrs. Brown tossed the pages she’d been reading across the desk. “That’s the routine she tried on the class today.”

Flummoxed, Karen began to peruse Hanna’s report and felt her face growing warm with each subsequent punchline. Halfway down the first page she exclaimed, “Hanna!”

“So, what do you think?” the girl inquired, cautiously.

“I think you’re too young to tell vagina jokes!”

“Oh, but I’m not too young to have one? That hardly seems fair.”

“This goes on for THREE PAGES!”

Principal Brown went on to explain. “The teacher stepped out for a moment and Hanna made it about halfway through her bit before the teacher returned to the classroom. We had to buy off the kids with ice-cream sandwiches to ensure that their parents never hear about this.”

“Oh—laptop!” Hanna chirped and filled in her puzzle.

“Hanna, could you be a dear and wait outside while I talk to your mother?”

“Sure,” the girl said. She collected her things and then made her exit, dragging her backpack behind her. As she went out the door, she said over her shoulder, “Just yell if you need me, Mom.”

Principal Brown rose from her desk to shut the door and then sat down in the chair next to Karen. Karen noticed the principal’s woolen socks had individual toes poking through the sandal straps. She frowned at the peculiar sight.

“I’m sorry about this,” Karen apologized. “I don’t know where this is coming from.”

Mrs. Brown held up her palm. “It’s okay. I’m not going to punish her for doing her assignment. I mean, she obviously put a lot of effort into it.”

“But—but, this, it’s,” Karen lamented, shaking the offending sheets of paper.

“A little misguided? Yes.” Mrs. Brown was showing her gums again. “I’ve given Hanna the afternoon off—excused, of course—so that, perhaps, you could take this opportunity to explain to her about what is appropriate and what isn’t.”

“You don’t think I condoned this, do you?” Karen was mortified.

“No. But in my experience, when a child acts out in class, it’s often for a reason. I remember how it was for your older daughter. Are things okay at home?”

“At home? Of course,” Karen said, though her intonation seemed to question her own words. She didn’t like where this conversation seemed to be going.

Principal Brown returned to her desk. She sifted through the clutter until she found a business card and handed it to Karen.

“This is the child psychologist the school refers our at-risk kids to.”

“At risk?” Karen was shaken.

“Don’t worry. The state covers the cost.” More of Brown’s annoying gums were showing. “Since the pandemic, there’s been lots of funding for mental health.”

Karen stared at the card. At risk? A head-shrinker for Hanna? Just because she told some off-color jokes? Karen felt a constriction in her chest and frowned at the principal.

“You really think this is necessary?”

“Maybe not,” Mrs. Brown shrugged. “But Dr. Thomas is very good. She’ll know soon enough if Hanna could benefit from counseling. I’m only concerned because of how things went with Hanna’s sister.”

Karen was numb as she rose to her feet. Principal Brown walked her out to the reception area, where Hanna was busy delivering an animated monologue to the secretary.

“Last night I thought I grew a boob,” Hanna was saying. “Turns out it was just a popcorn kernel I dropped down my shirt. You can imagine my disappointment.”

The secretary was in tears from laughter.

The drive across town was silent. Hanna stared out the window while bopping her head to the music in her headphones. Karen fretted over today’s events and kneaded the steering wheel until her knuckles turned white. Her first instinct was to be furious with her daughter, but the referral to a psychologist had mitigated her ire. Now she wasn’t sure how she was supposed to feel.

Hanna removed her headphones and said, “I’m hungry.”

Karen sighed. “Hanna, since when did you decide to become a comedian?”

“I don’t know,” the girl shrugged. “I say stuff, people laugh. I don’t see what the big deal is.”

“Well, why couldn’t you take up a normal hobby? Like skateboarding or playing chess?”

“Mom, chess?”

“What? Girls play chess.”

“Sure they do—in Romania.” Hanna looked out and scanned the streets and found them unfamiliar. “Hey, where are we going? I just wanna go home.”

“Your little stunt interrupted my day, missy,” Karen scolded her. “I had to cancel a house showing because of you.”


Karen sighed. “It’s okay. They were never going to buy from me, anyway. But we still have to stop at the butcher’s and pick up stuff for Daddy’s party this weekend.”

“Party?” Hanna sniffed. “He’s gone so much, now we throw him a party when he comes home?”

“It’s his birthday, wise guy.”

At the butcher’s shop the pair stood in line with the rest of the busy lunch crowd. Hanna crinkled her nose at the store’s peculiar meat smell while studying the loops of kielbasa strung about like Christmas tinsel.

“Boy, it’s a real sausage-fest in here,” she said. This elicited a few chuckles from those nearby.

“Hanna!” Karen screeched through clenched teeth. She felt her cheeks go hot again. “You don’t even know what that means.”

Hanna flicked her eyes to the muscly young bagboy in his tight, greasy t-shirt. “Oh, I think I do.”

The rest of the week was largely uneventful and Hanna’s first session with Dr. Robin Thomas was Saturday morning, the day of Dan’s birthday party. Karen dropped her daughter off at the doctor’s office and then sped off to finish her shopping for the festivities happening later that night. Left on her own, Hanna walked into an empty reception area and wondered if she was in the wrong place.

“Hello? Anybody here?”

Dr. Thomas emerged from another room. She was young—younger than Hanna’s mom anyways—and quite attractive, which caught Hanna off guard. She’d been expecting someone much closer to Sigmund Freud.

“You must be Hanna,” the doctor smiled. “I’m Dr. Thomas, but you can call me Robin if you like.”

Hanna looked around at the empty waiting room. “Where is everybody?”

“It’s just you and me. Saturdays are reserved for my new patients. Come on in.” She motioned for Hanna to follow her.

The next room was carpeted in primary colors, much like a kindergarten class. The furniture was child-sized, all except for a couple of overstuffed leather chairs. In one corner was a bin full of toys and on a short-legged table were some coloring books. Hanna paused to inspect the books.

“Would you like to color?” Robin asked as she picked up a spiral-bound notebook.

“I got coloring books at home,” Hanna replied dismissively, and climbed into one of the leather chairs.

The young doctor made a note in her notepad and then took a seat facing the girl.

“So, where is your mother? Parking the car?”

“She’s at the party store picking up balloons.”

“Oh? Balloons?”

“It’s my dad’s birthday.”

“I see.” Robin made some more notes.

“Does she lose points for not being here?” Hanna asked, gesturing to the notebook. “Thought I was the crazy one.”

“Hanna, no one thinks you’re crazy. And, no, I’m not keeping score of anything.”

“If I’m not crazy, why am I here?”

“You don’t know?”

Hanna turned her gaze to the window. “I told some dirty jokes at school.”

Robin had gotten the gist of the story from her initial conversation with Karen over the phone, who seemed to be even more confused about the situation than Hanna. A follow up chat with Principal Brown helped to fill in some of the blanks. Brown also mentioned the family’s previous experience with Hanna’s older sister, Katie. A young girl on the verge of adolescence acting up in class was hardly unusual, but Mrs. Brown thought Hanna might benefit from an evaluation and the doctor agreed. Robin trusted the principal; Mrs. Brown knew her students well. Robin also thought it was notable that the mother didn’t attend today’s meeting.

“Your jokes were. . .” Robin searched for the right word. “They weren’t exactly age appropriate.”

Hanna shrugged. “I can’t help it if they’re all a bunch of babies.”

“Do you see your classmates as babies?”

“I was talkin’ about the teachers.” Hanna studied her palms. “Loretta, the school secretary, thinks I’m hilarious.”

Robin made more notes.

“How does your mom treat you, Hanna? Does she allow you to do grown-up things?”

“She lets me shave my legs,” the girl admitted. “But only up to the knees. Not here on my thighs. I don’t know what that’s about.”

“How does it feel?”

Hanna furrowed her brow. “How do you think? Silky smooth.”

“No.” Robin managed to suppress a chuckle. “I meant, does it make you feel grown-up to shave your legs?”

Hanna looked up at the ceiling as she pondered the question.

“I guess the first time it did. Now it’s just a pain in the ass.”

“Welcome to womanhood,” Robin quipped.

“Can I say ass?”

“Do you say it at home?”

“Not without getting’ an earful from Mom.”

“Let’s keep it G-rated, then.” Robin scribbled some more, then flipped to a fresh page. “So, tell me a little about your father.”

“I thought we were keepin’ it G-rated.”

The party was slated to kick off around six p.m. It was Dan’s fortieth, and Karen was determined to make it a grand affair. The backyard was garnished with balloons and colored lights. Tables were erected and covered with food and drink. In the far corner of the lawn a local band sat up on a small plywood stage. By five-thirty, guests were already beginning to arrive.

As a consultant for a software company, Dan Ferguson spent nearly two-hundred days a year on the road, though he usually tried to be home for major holidays, most of the birthdays, and some anniversaries. A couple of weeks each summer he packed up the family for a vacation. Yet, beyond that, Dan’s handsome face was rarely seen around the house except inside of picture frames and the occasional video chat.

Dan’s plane landed early that afternoon, yet Karen never quite found the right time to tell him about their daughter’s peculiar aspiration to be a late-night comic. Secretly, she’d held out hope that the good Dr. Thomas would deduce that there was nothing at all to be concerned about regarding Hanna’s behavior. Unfortunately, without revealing much at all, a second session was scheduled for next week. Since Dan’s arrival, Karen had been busy tying up loose ends in anxious anticipation of tonight’s soiree. It wasn’t until the band kicked off their first set that she finally took a moment to breathe.

As guest of honor, Dan was charming as always, holding sway over the dozens of guests with entertaining tales of his many travels. As the booze flowed, his stories grew evermore outrageous. So too did his flirtations with the ladies in attendance. Despite the blatant affront, Karen did her best to play the good host, moving through the crowd to insure everyone was enjoying the celebration. She soon discovered, though, that Dan wasn’t the only one who could draw a crowd. In a dimly lit corner of the lawn, she found Hanna, mid-monologue, speaking to a handful of guests.

“So, I got some new silk underpants,” Hanna told her amused audience. “Let me tell ya, that is not how you want to discover an allergy to silk.”

The onlookers chuckled uncomfortably.

“Hanna!” Karen barked and snatched the girl by the collar before she could go into any of the itchy details. Exasperated, Karen sternly sent the girl to her room without any discussion and then marched off to find Dan. It was time he knew what his daughter had been up to.

When she finally found her husband, his own crowd seemed to have diminished down to one: Linda, the shapely divorced harlot from down the block. Whatever story Dan was sharing with the tramp, he was doing it up close—Jeezus!—leaning in with his nose virtually in her ear. The sight of the pair sitting so close, practically canoodling, instantly brought Karen’s blood to a full boil. It also brought up bitter images of the others that had come before. The dancer in Omaha, the waitress in Spokane, the flight attendant at thirty-thousand feet.

The ones Karen knew about.

Karen quickly finished off her vodka-tini in one hot gulp as she fought to rein in her fury. Sure, she’d been no angel herself, she thought. There was that one time, with the young bagboy from the butcher’s shop—but that was mostly in a desperate response to Dan’s many infidelities, so it hardly counted. Besides, the tussle didn’t make her feel any better. If anything, she just felt older—and greasy; it took three washings to get the smell of cold cuts out of the sheets. Still, despite the stab of guilt for her own indiscretion, she still blamed Dan. For everything. Including for their daughters. Especially for Katie. With the booze helping to center her thoughts, she determined it was time to finally stand up for herself; to stand up for her daughters. For her family. She fearlessly approached her philandering husband.

“Dan!” Karen announced boldly. “We need to talk.”

Startled, but hardly fazed, Dan offered his wife the lazy insouciant smile that had always melted the ladies’ hearts. “Oh, hey, Babe. I was just tellin’ Linda about your rose garden.”

Good lord—he thinks he’s Brad Pitt! Karen marveled. To this she snipped, “Sure you were. Look, this morning, I had to take Hanna—”

“Can’t this wait?” he interrupted. “This is supposed to be a party.”

“This is about your daughter, Dan,” Karen exploded. Linda-the-harlot took this as her cue to vanish into the night and she scurried away.

“Babe, you’re making a scene,” Dan said while smiling awkwardly at the onlookers. “Why don’t we go inside?”

I’m making a scene?” Karen took a deep breath. “Our Hanna’s seeing a shrink, Dan.”

“Wha—Since when?”

“Since she decided to go all ‘Eddie Murphy: Raw’ in front of her homeroom class.” Karen stabbed a delicately manicured finger into his chest. “I blame you. You’re the one who let her stay up late to watch those Richard Pryor concerts.”

Dan chuckled—a dangerous move. “Jokes? Is that what this is all about?”

“Dan! Our eleven-year-old talks like Sarah Silverman—in public!”

“Who? Wait, let’s just pump the brakes.”

“I frickin’ hate you when you pump the brakes,” she seethed. “This is what you always do. Avoid the problem.”

“Karen, I think that you’ve probably had enough to drink, tonight.”

“No! You don’t get to do that. Don’t turn this on me.”

Dan flashed his dreamy smile and Karen, to her chagrin, felt herself falter. Despite everything, he still had his powers and he knew it. He was unflappable. Defeated, Karen slumped into a nearby lawn chair.

“It’s just,” she started, her voice quivering now. “You’re never here and Hanna has become so…so independent. And with Katie gone—it’s like no one even needs me anymore.”

Dan regarded his distraught wife as her tears made their debut.

“Hon, of course we need you. I think you’re overreacting.”

“Am I Dan?” Karen pushed her head into her hands. “I can’t lose another daughter,” she whispered meekly.

Sensing things were growing more serious now, Dan knelt at her feet.

“Honey, Hanna is nothing like her sister.”

“How? How is this any different?”

“Well,” Dan pondered. “For one, Katie was never funny.”


“Karen, I’m serious. There was absolutely nothing funny about Katie. She was serious and tragic and melancholic and histrionic and just plain mean. But she was definitely not funny.” He put a finger under her chin and lifted her face so he could see her wet eyes. “Sweetie, Hanna is not Katie.”

“You’re gone all the time, how would you know?”

“What happened with Katie won’t happen with Hanna. I promise you.”

Karen searched his eyes. He looked scared. The past two years had been an unsettled time around the Ferguson home and he’d been gone for most of it. Since Katie’s estrangement from the family, Hanna had retreated into herself for a time and seemingly reemerged as a shock comic. And now—finally—Dan seemed to get it. She fell into his embrace, sobbing; weeping for the daughter she’d already lost—and for the daughter she was desperately struggling not to lose. Dan squeezed her and dammit, it felt good. Right now, she needed him. She needed him now more than ever.

But she did not trust him.

Frustrated, Karen pushed him away and stormed off, pushing her way through the crowd. Dan watched her disappear and then resignedly sighed. Welcome to forty, he thought. From across the yard came a sharp squeal of feedback from the band’s PA system, followed by an amplified hum. The sound caught Dan’s attention and he looked over his shoulder to see Hanna up on the stage. She was fussing with a microphone stand and finally managed to lower the mic to her level. He paused to take in the sight of his youngest daughter. During his frequent absence, she’d continued to grow up without his noticing, and he was suddenly aware of just how much she’d begun to resemble her older sister. Radiant under the stage lights, Dan thought his little girl looked like an angel.

Hanna looked out to the crowd and then leaned into the mic.

Tap, tap. “Is this thing on?”


Jamie Cunningham is a Cherokee tribal member (wolf clan) and the author of Collapse of Chaos and Broken Parachutes, a collection of his short stories.  His short fiction has appeared in such literary journals as Confrontation and The Iconoclast.  He is also an accomplished guitarist and musician, playing on stages across the Midwest and appearing on a dozen albums over the years, and is a skilled portrait artist and graphic designer, as well. Alicuius mens in scriptis spirat.