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News & Features » April 2016 » “Surviving” by Brendan J. O’Brien

“Surviving” by Brendan J. O’Brien

Are you a parent going through the Terrible Twos? Did you live through them and survive? Terrible Twosdays is a place to commiserate over the unending shenanigans of your Darling Children (as the online parenting communities say). Nonfiction stories will be considered, so long as names have been changed to protect the guilty. Inspired by our best-selling gift book for parents, Go the Fuck to Sleep, Terrible Twosdays joins the roster of our other online short fiction series. Unlike Mondays Are Murder and Thursdaze, we’re looking for stories with a light and mischievous feel, all about the day-to-day challenges of parenting. As with our other flash fiction series, stories must not exceed 750 words.

This week, Brendan J. O’Brien copes with a generational difference.

Brendan O'brienSurviving
by Brendan J. O’Brien

Moments after another Bears turnover, Ben comes wobbling down the hall wearing his mother’s fuchsia stilettos. He’s covered from head to toe in her accessories—purple scarf, jangly gold bracelets, and ivory wedding gloves. The kid loves to play dress up, would find the old satin gloves even if I burned them and buried the remnants in the yard.

My wife laughs. “You look like Wizzo from The Bozo Show,” she says. “Or no, Clark Griswold when he’s trapped in the attic.”

“Shitter’s full,” Ben says, reciting my favorite line from the classic. Again, my wife laughs.

My grandfather, however, is not amused. I can feel the heft of his annoyance, his cold stare eating into my conscience, telling me Ben’s behavior is not okay.

“Still dressing like a woman,” he whispers. “Be nice if my grandson put down the jewelry one of these days and picked up a football.”

We collect Grandpa from the veterans’ home every Sunday after church. Sitting through three hours of Bears football is torturous enough. No one should have to do it alone.

Late in the second quarter, Ben tires of playing with the accessories and hurries off to his room. Knowing what’s next, I kill my beer and crack another, bravery juice for the upcoming show.

The Bears defense bends, then breaks altogether as Detroit finds the end zone before half.  There’s twenty seconds left, but Chicago takes a knee and my grandfather swats trembling hands at the TV. Fifty-seven years ago he used them to operate his M1903 Springfield from a tower outside Stalingrad, sniping Germans through their eye sockets. Now, they tremor so bad he has trouble with silverware.

“Pussies,” he says. “They need Ditka back. At least he had balls.”

As if on cue, Ben comes skipping down the hall after another wardrobe change. He’s now wearing a white spandex singlet, powder-blue tights, and matching slippers.

“What the hell?”

Grandpa’s no longer whispering. Ben laughs at his language.

“Halloween’s next week,” explains my wife. “He’s Baryshnikov.”

Again, my grandfather looks at me. “Your son is dressed like a goddamn ballerina.”

He thinks I should be teaching him to build lean-to’s, or how to flip over logs to find squirming tumors of insects that can be squished into protein-rich pastes, survival techniques my father used to evade the Viet Cong in the jungles of Saigon.

“He’s not a ballerina,” I say. “The males are danseurs.”

“Danseurs,” he repeats. “He’s wearing a tutu, Rob.”

“It’s a leotard. It’s asexual.”

“You got that right,” he mumbles.

My wife chimes in. “Give it a rest, Jack. He’s good, okay? Best in his class.”

Oh boy.


“Yes. A class. He’s the lead in The Nutcracker next month. Should we pick you up?”

Little Ben, beaming, looks at his great-grandfather, awaiting his response. The old man rubs his forehead and shifts in his chair. As a teenager he was 250 pounds of chiseled muscle, had a full ride to play for Leahy’s Irish before the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor and his old man demanded he ship out.

“You know what The Nutcracker was when I was a kid?” he asks.

“Pretty sure it was a ballet back then too,” my wife mumbles.

“It was a drill. Two of us on the ground, helmet-to-helmet, staring up at the sky. One had the football. The other wanted it. When the whistle blew, all hell broke loose.”

“Is it normal for players to lie down?” chides my wife.

“We got gouged in the eyes and kneed in the nuts, but it taught us to adapt,” the old man says, ignoring her. “Taught us to survive. But, hey, I’m sure ballet teaches those things too.”

My son points a toe, forms an oval with his arms and pirouettes around the room. He’s not half bad, but the old man ignores him and stalks off toward the den.

I unlock my chair and wheel over. From my seated position I mimic his movements as best I can. As we twirl, I close my eyes and try to remember what it felt like to run and tackle on crisp autumn evenings, try to recall the crunch of sand under my boots as our unit surged through the desert. Ben’s mother pulls the coffee table out of the way and together we spin, father and son, adapting to our surroundings, doing whatever it takes to survive.


BRENDAN J. O’BRIEN lives in Wisconsin. The father of toddler twins and a brand-new baby boy, he scribbles stories on whatever he can find in between burpings, bottle warmings, and butt wipings. His fiction has been published in numerous places, including Dogzplot, Stymie, Storyglossia, and W.W. Norton’s Hint Fiction Anthology. 


Do you have a story you’d like us to consider for online publication in the Terrible Twosdays flash fiction series? Here are the submission terms and guidelines:

—We are not offering payment, and are asking for first digital rights. The rights to the story revert to the author immediately upon publication.
—Your story should focus on the challenges of parenting. Ideally, stories should be about children aged 0 to 5, but any age (up to early teens) is acceptable. Stories may be fiction or nonfiction.
—Include the child’s age at the time of the story next to your byline.
—Your story should not exceed 750 words.
—E-mail your submission to info@akashicbooks.com. Please paste the story into the body of the email, and also attach it as a PDF file.

Posted: Apr 26, 2016

Category: Original Fiction, Terrible Twosdays | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,