Today we are excited to publish the winner of our 2020 Flash Fiction contest. We received more than 200 submissions and our judge, Cathy Ulrich, chose “The Stupid Smart Girl” by Monica Wang. She will receive a $125 cash award plus $25 (our regular submission acceptance rate). Cathy had this to say about Monica’s flash: “What drew me to this piece was the authenticity of voice — I really believed in Sukaina’s character. She felt like a whole, complete person to me, struggling to make sense of the world around her exactly as a child would do. It had the strongest ‘voice,’ for me, of all the pieces, and that’s something that’s so important to me in fiction, is getting that narrative voice right.” Congratulations to our winner, Monica Wang, and many thanks to all the writers who submitted their work.
by Monica Wang
Sukaina works on her homework first thing after school, earning a few hours to play with her Legos and Barbies on the bedroom floor. She calls both of her Barbie-like dolls Barbie, though she knows this is the wrong name for the plastic woman with the closed-mouth smile and brown hair. Only the doll with yellow hair, the one who smiles with teeth, is a real Barbie, though—and she hasn’t told anyone this, least of all the dolls themselves—Sukaina prefers the impersonator.
After dinner she slips into the basement, where her parents’ hard voices drift down as ocean snow, softening the cold space between the unused furniture and empty moving boxes. She reads until bedtime. Sometimes she sits with her chin pushing into her knees pushing against the inside of the trash can, a her-sized room within a room. There’s nothing wrong with this, she’s sure, because they haven’t ever used the trash can, and she doesn’t close the lid over herself except when she needs a few seconds of quiet. She likes its color and almost velvety texture. All city-issued trash cans are plastic in darker-than-forest green. Sukaina’s father had their house done inside and out in the same shade by a Caucasian designer, an acquaintance he made for this purpose. Sukaina doesn’t have any Kens for her Barbies, but she thinks the designer looks like Cinderella’s prince, especially when he laughs (Sukaina counts eight white upper teeth) and asks Sukaina’s mother if she likes the color palette.
“Tasteful,” their dinner guests say, nodding.
The adults always stand in the dark green sitting room, leaving the dark green furniture stiff and cold. Sukaina’s mother says it’s a hideous colour. Depressing. One of her parents must be wrong, and Sukaina hasn’t figured out which. She hopes it isn’t one of those trick questions with no answers to look up. They make her anxious, which makes her pull out strands of hair, any strand that doesn’t feel straight and smooth, from the top of her head. She finds trichotillomania in her father’s medical dictionary and realizes her mother has this also.
Her mother goes away—a doctor has to remove a tumor from her belly at the hospital, unfamiliar adults tell Sukaina, after her mother leaves. Sukaina looks up tumour; also tumor in her dictionary, and memorizes both spellings. She tells her homeroom teacher the news, to explain why she has no packed lunch and does not feel like going outside for recess, but mispronounces the new word. The teacher doesn’t understand.
On the fourth night without her mother, Sukaina awakens to a stranger’s voice coming from her parents’ bedroom. She reports this to her aunt—the aunt who says she is Sukaina’s substitute mother for the week, who has neither called nor come to the house.
Her aunt says, “When your father comes home, you ask him these questions…”
Don’t be stupid is his answer. “You’re not a little kid anymore,” he says. “Stay out of grown-ups’ problems. Tell your aunt to tell your mother not to do anything crazy.”
It dawns upon Sukaina that a smart girl would understand what’s going on and know how to untangle contradictions. She’s not a smart girl after all, despite her straight-As-except-in-French. She should work harder at school.
“Nerd,” her classmates say. “Teacher’s pet.” Or they don’t speak to her at all.
Two of the three boys who came to her previous birthday party knock her over in gym class. Everyone else laughs. Sukaina leaves the gymnasium and locks herself in a washroom stall. When the teacher knocks on the partition wall, Sukaina is startled and embarrassed—hiding in the washroom during class is neither good nor normal, she’s certain. She’s also afraid the teacher will force her way in, maybe crawl in under the partition. The teacher stays outside, offers to talk to the boys, and then leaves. Sukaina waits as long as she dares before going back to the classroom. She apologizes to the teacher with an excuse about throwing up, so they wouldn’t have to discuss bullying. The teacher looks relieved.
“You’re very bright,” Sukaina’s teachers say.
Still, they don’t talk to her the way they do with students who make them laugh, whose company they visibly enjoy. After school, Sukaina watches them from the classroom doorway, envying them their happy voices and doll-colored hair. She wishes she were smart enough to make her father and other grown-ups like her; she suspects her wishes don’t come true because she pulls out the eyelashes she blows away like dandelion fluff, instead of waiting for them to naturally fall. How do I become a smart girl? The answer must be something more than homework, dictionary definitions, an eye for color… but as yet she doesn’t know what.
Image: Painting by Steve Johnson. Find more of his work on Instagram @artbystevej.
Hi Monica, I really enjoyed reading this. You so beautifully describe the awkwardness of growing up and feeling “abnormal”. The prize is well deserved. Congratulations!
So much going on here, hidden in the details. A wonderful piece.
Congratulations! This is an incredible piece, there’s so much detail in so few words and it perfectly describes what life looks like at a young age when nothing is really ‘normal’.
My heart breaks for Sukaina. A story is great when I think about it over and over again. This one is great!!!
This story hits me right in the gut. It is so well done. I love the care with which you chose each word. Thank you for writing this!