KYSO Flash
Knock-Your-Socks-Off Art and Literature
Issue 11: Spring 2019
Flash Fiction: 711 words

Risk Factors for Dying

by Bess Vanrenen

“How was his day?” I ask Miss Linda but my mind’s on his test results, which were due earlier this afternoon but hadn’t come in. Miss Linda’s blue eyes penetrate mine as she tells me he had a bad day.

I tell myself she’s overreacting, that she has unrealistic expectations of four-year-olds. But when she tells me Julian slapped her, I waver. My eyes flit from her almost gleeful expression to her dyed blond hair to the side-lying cross on her neck.

On the way home, I talk to Julian about not hitting teachers, about not hitting anyone but especially not teachers, and I need to see a sign of contrition in him, but he only says he didn’t want to take a nap.

Back home, I put Violet in her crib with some blocks. Julian plays on the living room floor, and for a few minutes, I flow through the house as though I’m plugged into an invisible energy source, hanging jackets and unpacking bags and putting dinner in the oven.

Soon the smell of browned dough and melted mozzarella fills the house, and I call out it’s time for dinner. Julian freezes. “But Mommy, I haven’t watched my TV show yet.” I remind him he didn’t take a nap and in fact smacked Miss Linda at naptime, which means no TV show. He starts howling.

The emotions he unleashes are primordial. The screams of childbirth. The roar of battle. I carry Violet to her highchair but she stiffens her chubby legs, forcing me to wedge her in. Now Violet is wailing, too—a dissonant chorus. I think of how Julian slapped his teacher, how he bit a classmate’s finger. I think of how he told me two kids at school deleted him from their game. I think of words like, “normal,” “abnormal,” “safe,” “unsafe.” I want to hold my hand over his mouth to stop the crying. My ears hurt, my brain hurts. Julian exclaims I’m hurting his feelings. I tell him to calm down, but he cries out that he doesn’t know how to.

Then he starts coughing. Before the harried dinner, before daycare pick-up, during a busy day at work, I worried about Julian and his allergy to nuts. The allergy that caused such a severe reaction to a granola bar he ended up in the hospital, his cheeks as round as softballs, his lips ballooned, an angry topography of welts covering his torso, arms, and face. So bad I found the nerve to ask the doctor if there was a chance my son wouldn’t survive. On his fourth birthday, Julian was due for a blood test that would tell me if he was still allergic to nuts, a blood test promised by an allergist when he was two and first diagnosed. But as his pediatrician ordered the test, she said she’d never seen a child outgrow a nut allergy. And that leveled me.

Still at work, the lab results I expected hadn’t come in yet, but the doctor’s words, “I’ve never seen a child outgrow a nut allergy,” ran through my mind. Searching online for nut allergies and fatalities, I found a website listing people who died from food allergies: Tanner, Megan, Anthony, Shalev; died after eating takeout, died from an anaphylactic allergic reaction, died after eating at an Indian restaurant, died after eating sorbet; 11, 37, 15, 50 years old—and my vision blurred.

Then I remembered how the allergist told me people who suffered from both food allergies and asthma were at the highest risk of dying from an allergic reaction. So I looked up the symptoms of asthma, and discovered crying, laughing, or other strong emotional reactions cause coughing in asthmatic kids.

Julian had coughed several times after a recent tantrum.

And as he follows me into the kitchen, crying, crying that I hurt his feelings, and as Violet sits in her highchair crying, too, Julian begins to cough. I drop into my chair at the kitchen table and put my head in my hands, still wishing he would stop crying, still upset he hit his teacher and bit his classmate, still confused as to why he can’t calm down, and stunned, absolutely stunned, by the possibility of death.


Bess Vanrenen
Issue 11, Spring 2019

A writer, editor, and (mostly armchair) traveler, Bess Vanrenen lives in Denver with her family. She has an MA degree in English from the University of Colorado at Boulder and an MFA degree in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. Her personal essays are published in a variety of print and digital publications, including Role Reboot and The Manifest-Station. Her short stories have been published in The Sand Hill Review and The Magnolia Review.

Author’s website:

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