We are thrilled today to share the winning story of our 2023 Spring Flash Fiction Contest, by Michelle Ross. Tomorrow we will announce the second and third place recipients and hear from our judge Sabrina Hicks on her choices.



by Michelle Ross

The two-day pinch-hitter course is free, so I don’t need to ask David for money. But he would talk me out of it. What do you need to learn how to land a plane for? I’m the pilot. So each day, I take an Uber there and back while David’s at work.

On the first day, the soft-spoken instructor passes around diagrams of the cockpit controls and talks at length about the yoke, the ailerons, the elevator, the altimeter.

The one male student asks, “Do we really need to know all this to land a plane?”

The instructor says, “I’m teaching you more than you need to know so you will understand just how simple flying really is. Anyone can do it.”

On the second day, we take turns going up into the air so that we can practice controlling the plane, and most importantly, landing. I land three times, each a little more smoothly than the last. My fear settles and purrs like a cat in my lap.

After, I head outside to catch an Uber again, but there is David. In the convertible, the top down, though the temperature is 115 Fahrenheit. Hot enough to cook an egg on the sidewalk: an idiom, but also, around here, a real thing. A few weeks ago, students in the elementary school a few blocks from us cracked eggs into foil-lined pizza boxes, then ran through sprinklers while the glistening eggs lured constellations of flies.

David is tan and distinguished from a distance, but as with salad greens going bad, the closer I get, the better I can detect the slimy bits, like the way the corners of his mouth turn down no matter his expression, how he perpetually licks his lips.

He looks at me as one would a disobedient child.

When we pull away from the curb, hot air pummels the side of my face, and I grip the top of the door where the window hides inside the steel frame: a tooth on the verge of erupting. I study Camelback Mountain—its two distinct rock formations. The larger peak, the hump, is made up of one kind of rock, while the smaller peak, the camel’s head, is made up of another kind. I can’t recall the details, only that the two kinds of rock are vastly different ages.

How David found out about the course, I don’t ask.

David says, “I don’t know why you want to fly when you don’t even know how to drive.”

I’ve told him plenty of times that I know how to drive, I just prefer not to. Hit-and-runs are commonplace in Arizona. Just last week, a man ran another driver off the road right on this very roadway and stabbed him.

“I know how to take control of a car if I need to,” I say. “If I don’t learn how to handle your plane, what do you think will become of me if something happens to you up there?”

Knowing how to land a plane is only half of it. The terrain of the saguaro-spotted mountain ranges and the sandy desert valleys is vast and wild, home to rattlesnakes, scorpions, and mountain lions. More deadly than all those creatures combined is the heat.

“Nothing’s going to happen to me,” David says.

My father was merely four years older than David when he died of a cancer last year, but I don’t remind David of this. Instead, I share an anecdote my instructor relayed about a woman whose husband died of a heart attack while flying. She’d just taken the pinch-hitter course a few weeks earlier. If she hadn’t, she’d be dead, too.

“How old were they?” David asks.

“What does that matter?”

“How old?” he repeats.

“I think he said the woman was eighty maybe?” I say.

“They were elderly,” he says.

“I don’t know how old the man was,” I say.

“Well, he certainly wasn’t younger,” David says. “Nothing’s going to happen to me. All you need to do is relax and enjoy the view.”

The view is Scottsdale, which is like a very boring miniature golf course. All manicured surfaces, but no windmills or castles or unicorns or other things one goes to a miniature golf course to see.

David said something similar when we first met, at the Asian fusion restaurant in Seattle where I used to wait tables. I asked if he was ready to order, and order he did, gesturing to the seat across from him, commanding, “Relax. Let me take care of you.” I only a little reluctantly obeyed. It was nice for a time—being someone’s pet.

As David weaves in and out of lanes, honking whenever anyone doesn’t get out of his way, I conjure my instructor’s soft, soothing voice, a voice that could have lulled me to sleep if I hadn’t been so eager to learn how to keep 12 thousand pounds of steel from doing what I’ve been doing all my life, which is to say, submitting to great forces without a fight.


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