Austin Gilmore: Flash Fiction


My parents will retire soon, their eyes too fuzzy, their hands too shaky to fill prescriptions, and this crusty old pharmacy will be my cross to bear.

And I will be stuck.

It’s a hard pill to swallow, accepting that there’s no way out. But I’ve begrudgingly started trying my best since I know this place is my only option. I’ve come in early, stayed late, and even made a list of improvements I thought could help this stupid little pharmacy. And at the top of that list is getting rid of the prehistoric photo kiosk by the front counter because, seriously, who still prints their photos? 

“Can’t. Charleston uses it,” Dad answered, not looking up from dividing pills with what looks like a knife used to ice a cake.

I soon met this Charleston. A white-haired fossil with a catcher’s mitt for a face and a question mark for a body. He’s of our “Sunday Regulars” who shuffles in near closing to pick up his high-dosage heart medicine and print off dozens of photos on our turn-of-the-century kiosk. 

“Got some good ones?” I asked the first week I saw him, really not caring.

“It’s not up to me which ones are good or bad,” he said as he paid and left.  

“Show me your favorite one,” I said the next Sunday, now actually caring. 

“Not for your eyes, my dear,” he said with a mischievous grin.

And, let me tell you, that made my blood boil. So, you know what I did? I closed the pharmacy, turned off the lights, and opened the front panel of the kiosk because here’s the dirty little secret we don’t tell our customers: a copy of every photo printed on that dumb thing is stored on an internal hard drive. “Keep smiling, old man,” I said to the empty store, “I’ll see your dumb pictures one way or another.”

Because this is what I do. If I want something, I take it.

I jumped back at the sight of the first image, regretting turning off most of the store’s lights, darkness now a creeping fog. The photo was of a grinning woman in a war-time dress, her face, her body, her everything a translucent blue.  

“That’s a goddamn ghost,” I screamed in the empty pharmacy.

I went through the entire hard drive, and oh my god, there were thousands of them. Two decades of smiling portraits of translucent men, women, and children. 

“This is my way out,” I said to myself, not knowing what I meant.

“How long have you been snappin’ pics of ghosts?” I asked him the following Sunday. 

“As long as I can remember. Would you like to see how I do it?”

“I get off at 7. Tell me where,” I answered, way too excited.

We sat in the back shadows of a restaurant I’ve walked by my whole life. I ate the best meal of my life as the old man conversed with thin air. At the end of the night, he pulled out his camera and took a picture of the empty chair opposite him, but on the screen appeared a smiling, translucent woman he called Lillian.

 The owner passionately thanked him as we left. Even though I had a million questions, I could only mutter, “We didn’t pay!”

“One of the many ways I get paid, my dear. If I keep her happy and bring pictures to her husband stuck haunting a deli on 4th, she won’t scare any diners. It’s a double dip. This place pays me, and the deli pays me. Restaurant ghosts are great, but you wanna know what’s even better?”

“Tell me.”

“Apartment ghosts. Haven’t paid rent since the eighties.”

“That’s all you do? You get paid to keep ghosts happy?”  

“That’s the gig.”

“That’s a dream job.”


“How’d you get a job like this?”

“I started seeing them once the guy before me died. I followed the beat he showed me, and I was off.”

“This is my way out,” I thought to myself, now knowing exactly what I had to do. 

She better kill me.

She didn’t hear the vile threats Lillian spewed. That they all spew. The photos of their displaced loves placate them, sure, but only barely. All I hear are their screams, their threats. And those are the ones that are stuck. Those who died in the open are bound by nothing and are free to follow me home. To figure out who matters most to me. If I don’t send this person a message, or photograph this person or that, they’ll go after what little I have left. I’m so tired. I want to be done. I want to move on. But I can’t die unless someone takes this power from me.  I hope she’s as desperate as I once was, as she seemed to be behind that pharmacy counter.

Desperate enough to kill for a way out.

To start fresh.

“Get any good shots this week?” she asks as she rings me up. I push the photos towards her, passing my camera on the counter I’ve already caught her eyeing. 

“See for yourself,” I say to her as I open the prescription bottle she retrieved from the back.

She barely looks at the photos she was dying to see a week ago, too busy staring at the bottle in my hand. This fills me with hope, something I haven’t had in decades. I tap three in my palm, and I catch her stopping herself from stopping me.

The pills are larger than usual. I swallow them like they’re new candy. 

She’s holding my camera like it’s already hers. 

I knew I had her.

“Thank you,” I say, relieved for the first time since before I did to him what she did to me. 

“For what?” she asks, her voice once so snarky now filled with regret. Or maybe it’s fear. 

But she doesn’t know true fear. Not yet. 

“For killing me.”



I watch him terrorize me every night, pulling me back into my childhood home kicking and screaming. There’s gotta be a reason this all started after he died, right? I’m sorry. I’m okay, I promise. Tomorrow’s just going to be a lot for me, and I–I dunno, I dunno, I dunno–I’m freaking out. Like, we’re all just supposed to come together and act like he wasn’t–I just want it to be over. Bury him and let me get on with my life, you know? I’m okay, I promise. Sorry for calling this late.  



Hunter, am I going crazy? You have to tell me if I’m—why can’t you see it? Him. He’s there. Why am I the only one—sorry. I’m okay. I love you. I’ll see you tomorrow. 



You’re not crazy. You saw what you saw. I love you too. Just say the word, and I will gladly beat the living shit out of your dead dad at his funeral tomorrow. I’m serious, Sarah, it’s a good idea! 



Lizzie. It’s Sarah. I woke up and decided I’m not going to his funeral. I just can’t.  Instead, I just wanna get epically, blackout drunk with my friends. That’s all I want. That and to beat the living shit out of my dead dad. Did you hear Hunter talking about that last night? It’s messed up, but I’m kinda into it. But I’ll settle for an all-day binge. Can you call Hunter? I’ve called him too many times. I’m embarrassed. 


Craig, it’s Lizzie. Sarah doesn’t want to go to his funeral. Which I totally get. He was a horrible, horrible father. Her entire childhood, that man terrorized her—whatever, the point is, she wants to get blackout drunk instead. Call Hunter and let him know we’re all meeting at the Starlite. 



Yo yo yo, it’s Craig. Bad news, pal. I know you had that whole plan to “beat the living shit out of Sarah’s dead dad,” but, I’m sorry to say, we’re getting day drunk at the Starlite instead, so get your ass there.  


Hey Hunter. Sorry about all the voicemails last night. Okay, so yeah . . .I told Lizzie about the glitch. I acted like I hadn’t been, so she’d—we’re going there. I’m showing her. I want to see what she sees, you know? It won’t take long, promise. We’ll see you at the Starlite after.



 No worries. If you’re gonna be late to the Starlite, then maybe I’ll stop by the funeral to toss these paws, get some licks in, know what I’m sayin’? But seriously, promise me you’ll stay in the car. It’s not safe to—shit,  Craig just got here—hey man—


Craiggie! Oh my God, Sarah told me about this crazy glitch on her phone. Ask Hunter about it. It’s wild. No matter what address she puts in or what navigation app she uses, she’s always directed to the same, random location. What’s even weirder? She’s never been there, never curious to see where it goes. Well, I talked her into going, thinking it would be a fun little distraction. I’m following her there now, so we’ll be a little late. 


Okay, well, this is a total bust. It led us to an empty lot between two abandoned buildings. A random piece of land with overgrown grass and charred, rusted barrels. Complete waste of time. Just some stupid GPS glitch. We’ll be there soon.



Lizzie doesn’t see it either. I’m the only one—doesn’t see my house. It’s a thousand miles away, but it’s here. I swear to God, it’s right here. It was decades ago, but now. Here. He’s in there, we’re all in there. I can see us all through the front window. I’m so small, so scared. I just ran out of the front door, burrowing under the front porch to hide from him. But he always found me, always pulled me out by my feet. He’s dragging me back inside—I could never escape—I have to—goddammit, no—Hunter’s right—Fuck it—



Craig! You need to come get us. We’re okay. We’re safe. But we need help—you and Hunter. She says she can see herself as a kid—Sorry, that’s—Sarah’s screaming she sees her childhood home, which doesn’t make sense since, you know, this isn’t Pittsburgh and I’m staring at the same thing, and it’s an empty fucking lot so—No, I don’t think . . . SARAH STOP!—don’t get out of the car—



We’re like—Hunter, how far are we—we’re like 5 minutes away. Listen, whatever you do, no matter what you see, stay in the car. Hunter says this glitch thing started after Sarah’s dad died. They’ve tested it every day since, putting in every address imaginable, his apartment, her work, the airport, fucking Disneyland, and every time it directed them there, which is fucking weird. I don’t understand it, so just stay in the car. 



—she ran into the lot and just . . . she just disintegrated—Sarah’s gone, she just fuc—it won’t let me through–there’s a barrier—a force—wait! There! Goddammit there—behind the—I see her—she looks pixelated—fuck!—like she’s behind bad tracking on a VHS tape—she’s dragging—WAIT! THERE! It shimmered back— It’s a house. IT’S HER HOUSE—she has him, she’s dragging her dad back into—nononono he tripped her—she’s on the ground—he’s so fast—he’s over her, pulling her hair, dragging her back to the house—I CAN’T GET TO HER! WHERE ARE YOU!? SHE NEEDS—she kicked his feet out from under—on top of him, pinning him down—he doesn’t recognize her, this version of her—he looks terrified—weak—she’s pummeling him, swinging down over and over—the house is lit up—it’s here, fully— its alive—watching—they’re all watching—swinging down over and over—face a bloody pulp—



Hunter, will you just call me back already? Are you seriously this upset?  Everyone knows it was your idea. Oh my God, meet us at the Starlite so we can celebrate beating the shit out of my dead dad together, alright?   



The following recordings were found on the Hypnos memory drives during the PiaCrete Inquiry. The crew was unaware of individual suit recordings, a relatively new protocol in all Hypnos aid ships. 

Perhaps if they had known, more people would still be alive. 

>> 0800.20.5 << Quadrant 3 of the Delphi-5 sector <<

CAPTAIN SINCLAIR: We have received a distress call from the PiaCrete, an idle florafuge ship in the Delphi-5 sector.  

LIEUTENANT MICKELSON: How many are on board?

CAPTAIN SINCLAIR: Based on heat signatures, just one.  

OFFICER LIVINGSTON: Oh God, here we go. Here. We Go. This is it. This is my worst nightmare.

SINCLAIR: What? Why are you—the purpose of this meeting is to vote on whether or not we should attempt to rescue the stranded crewmember of the PiaCrete. 

MICKELSON: We know the drill, Captain. I vote yes.

SINCLAIR: Good man. I vote yes. With two votes, the decision is to—


SINCLAIR: Excuse me?

LIVINGSTON: I enthusiastically vote no.  And per protocol, any rescue mission has to have a unanimous vote, correct?

SINCLAIR: I mean . . . yes, that is true in theory, but let me be clear, you are on a Hypnos aid ship. This is our job. This is why we are out here. We rescue people.

LIVINGSTON: Then why vote?

SINCLAIR: It’s more of a formality.

LIVINGSTON: If it were two people stranded, fine. A baker’s dozen? Sweet. Hell, five hundred? Man, let’s party. But I wasn’t born yesterday. I know what happens when there’s a single person stranded on a busted ship.  

MICKELSON: Well, we don’t, so how about you fill us in?

LIVINGSTON: Really? You’ve been trudging around the cosmos all these years, but you don’t know literally the first rule of space exploration? It’s simple: never rescue the last survivor on a broken-down spaceship. It always ends in a massacre.

Remember the Omega5? A crew just like us rescued a stranded ship with one—ONE!—passenger. They brought her on board, where she infiltrated the crew member’s minds, exposing their biggest fears, until they ultimately killed each other – absolute massacre.

CAPTAIN SINCLAIR: That’s an extreme example that—

LIVINGSTON: What about the Hepium Massacre? Same setup. The Hepium crew boards a dead ship, only to find one living passenger, covered in blood, head to toe, standing among the ravaged bodies of his crew. Then what happened?

CAPTAIN SINCLAIR: Okay, we get what you’re saying.

LIVINGSTON: No, then what happened?

SINCLAIR: That lone survivor killed everyone on the Hepium.

LIVINGSTON:  Exactly. Massacres follow every time.  

SINCLAIR: Not every time. That’s a bit of an exaggeration.

MICKELSON: Actually, Captain, I ran an analytical scan, and Livingston is right. A single-passenger rescue always ends in the total annihilation of the rescuing crew. I’m changing my vote to No.


SINCLAIR: Then explain the Vivirla Evacuation. The first year I was on a Hypnos we received a distress call from a dead ship drifting in the Archlalic Belt, right? We board and find a single passenger—a sweet eight-year-old boy hiding in the underbelly. He was the sole survivor of the Xenil Planet evacuation. And look at me. I survived the rescue.

LIVINGSTON: You’re talking about Lalos Wakes, right? Tell me, what happened after you rescued him?

SINCLAIR: Wait…Oh damn. I forgot.

LIVINGSTON: He was the reason for the Xenil evacuation. He was transported to a Base Station on Manul, where he—

SINCLAIR:  . . . massacred everyone on the base.

LIVINGSTON: I’m telling you, this never ends well.  We will be massacred. Or an entire station will be massacred. Or, Hell, an entire planet will be massacred.

SINCLAIR: Please stop saying “massacred.”

<< Incoming Transmission From The PiaCrete >> 

LIVINGSTON: Convenient timing. This should be good.  


LIVINGSTON: See! Mickelson gets it!

<< My name is Aldrus Hemteruz. I am the sole survivor of the PiaCrete. Our ship inexplicably ran out of air two rotations ago, killing my entire crew.  I am stuck in a pod but will soon be out of oxygen as well. And if I don’t deliver the florafuge replenishments to Minavigh, the planet will become inhabitable within three cycles. If you are hearing this, please help. >> 

SINCLAIR: Well, that settles it, we’re going.  

LIVINGSTON: Yeah, but you know, what if we wait? 

SINCLAIR: I’m not following—

LIVINGSTON: What if we let Hermteruz die, then board the ship, grab the replenishments, and bring them to Minavigh ourselves?  

SINCLAIR: I don’t care if it’s one life or three billion—

MICKELSON: Don’t say it’s the same because it’s not. 

LIVINGSTON: I’m telling you, never trust the lone survivor on a dead ship.

MICKELSON: Sir, I hate to say it, but he makes a good point. One life or three billion . . .

LIVINGSTON: Massacres, captain. Massacres.

LIVINGSTON: Admit it, you’re thinking about it.

SINCLAIR: Fine. Screw it.  We wait. This conversation, this vote, none of this ever happened. Do you understand?

MICKELSON: Yes, Captain.

LIVINGSTON: God, I love this.
>> 1200.21.1 << Quadrant 3 of the Delphi-5 sector <<

SINCLAIR: We can confirm there is an idle florafuge floating in the Delph-5 sector. Heat signatures show no life on board. Dammit, we’re too late! We will board the ship to ensure there aren’t any pressing transports to be delivered.

>> 1200.21.3<< Quadrant 3 of the Delphi-5 sector <<

SINCLAIR: After an exhaustive search, we determined that the PiaCrete was on its way to deliver the florafuge replenishments to Minavigh. Without this replenishment, the planet will begin ecoexstinction. We have repaired the PiaCrete so First Officer Livingston can make it to Minavigh in time to deliver the much-needed replenishments. 

>> 1200.21.6 << Quadrant 3 of the Delphi-5 sector <<

LIVINGSTON: I have made it to Minavigh. The PiaCrete broke down in outer orbit, but two Hypnos squad cars pulled me the rest of the way. The florafuge replenishments are being installed with less than a quarter cycle to spare. Without me, this planet would’ve surely di—[audible explosion; screams]—the sky is explo—Wait—oh god—[explosions]—why didn’t I—[explosions]—I’m the last passenger on a broken down shi—[audible explosion]—it’s a massacre—[explosions; white noise}.

image: Camera, from the Novelties series issued by Kinney Bros. Publisher: Issued by Kinney Brothers Tobacco Company 1889. Metropolitan Museum OA PD.

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