flash fiction


Dan Nielsen - The Itch Insect Magnified Two Hundred Times

Dan Nielsen drinks bourbon and plays ping pong. Old credits include Random House and University of Iowa Press anthologies. Recent work in: Jellyfish Review, Bird's Thumb, Major Literature[s], Storm Cellar, Spelk, and Pidgeonholes. Dan has a website: Preponderous, and you can follow him @DanNielsenFIVES. 

itch insect.png

C. C. Vanderbeck awoke with a feeling of vertigo, violent pain in the head, listlessness, torpidity, and a desire to remain lying down. He googled “medical symptoms” and found that his condition was favorable to the propagation of epidemics in consequence of the predisposing agency of putrefying emanations. C. C. called in to the comb factory. His boss, Edward J. Stanley, told him not to worry about it, that the last thing they needed was another epidemic.

C. C. then called his doctor, Joseph G. Richardson, M.D., and was informed that there were no available appointments that day, but that if he were willing to come in and wait the doctor might be able to squeeze him in.

Dr. Richardson’s office was within easy walking, running, or even leaping distance, but C. C. called a cab because walking, running, or leaping is liable to bring on enlargement of the veins of the legs, and sometimes to produce hernia or rupture.

The Itch Insect Magnified Two Hundred Times was seated at the kitchen table eating Honey Nut Cheerios with milk and banana. 

“What’s up, Pops? How come you’re not at work?” 

C. C. loved his son, but preferred not to speak to him, or acknowledge his existence. To maintain composure, he inhaled slowly through his nostrils, forcing the inhalations toward the last, keeping his chest well thrown out, until his lungs were filled with air. He held the air in for a full minute, then opened his mouth, and gently, slowly, exhaled, resulting in a hacking, spasmodic cough.

“You sick, Pops?”

More than anything, C. C. wanted to be an artist, but it was too late for that. An artist lived to be 44.46 and C. C. was already 47.54. On that particular day, C. C. wished he were a wool sorter with a life expectancy of 47.55. Unfortunately, C. C. was a comb maker, and would live to the ripe old age of 51.38.

“Hey, Pops, there’s a cab outside! You call a cab, or something?”


C. C. got in the cab. The driver was chatty.

“What is your occupation, if I may ask?”

“I am a comb maker.”

“Wise choice, life expectancy wise. As a driver, I will live a full 13.22 years fewer than you."

“Yes,” C. C. said huskily, “but you drive a cab while I spend my days making combs.”

The cab stopped. C. C. paid with a credit card and chose the 20% tip option. The driver was not through talking.

“Sir, what do your initials stand for?”

“My first name is Catarrh, which is fitting because of my hacking cough, pain in my head, discharge from my nostrils, husky voice, and general debility. My middle name is Consumption, which also fits because of my spasmodic cough, pain in my chest, night sweats, flushed face, emaciation, and fever.”

“My name is Enlarged Spleen,” the driver said, and they shook hands.

“Enlarged Spleen is a fairly common name,” C. C. said. “I’d recommend ten to fifteen drops of fluid extract of Bear’s Foot three or four times a day, applying a plaster composed of Burgundy pitch and belladonna, and also the use of massage over the affected part.”


“You’re welcome.”


The nurse, Aletris Farinosa, R.N., was large and beautifully oval. She had a wide, high, and prominent forehead. Her ears were medium-small and pleasingly shaped. Her face was small and not very muscular. Her jaws were not prominent. Her chin was prominent and large.

“Have a seat. The doctor will be with you in a moment.”

The waiting room was empty as always. No one saw doctors anymore. What was the point? C. C. sat in his favorite chair, the one closest to the coffee and furthest from Fox News on the TV. The choice of magazines was limited to back issues of Diseases Peculiar to Women. In an article titled, “Divisions of a Woman’s Life,” C. C. read that these divisions are infancy, puberty, maturity, menopause, and senility.

C. C. felt warm breath on the back of his neck and looked up to see Dr. Richardson standing directly behind him.

“What brings you in to see us today, Mr. Vanderbeck?”

The doctor was small and oddly shaped. He forehead was narrow and smooth. His eyes were reddish slits. He had large, ugly ears, and a large, muscular face. His jaw was aggressive. His chin retreated.

C. C. put down the magazine, saving his place with a finger. He listed his symptoms. Dr. Richardson stroked his nearly nonexistent chin.

“I advise morphine, one-quarter grain, hypodermically, to be repeated as necessary. When the condition becomes less severe an opiate may be given by mouth or rectum in the form of laudanum.”


There was a Walgreen’s directly across the street, Alexander Hanson, Pharm. D., filled the prescription and charged C. C. the minimum two-dollar co-pay.

In the Men’s Room, C. C. injected himself with morphine, and, for good measure, stuffed his rectum with laudanum. Feeling much better, he leapt all the way home.

The next day C. C. return to the comb factory where he made combs for another 3.83 years before quite expectedly dying.


Portions of this story were inspired by, or taken directly from,

MEDICOLOGY by Joseph G. Richardson, M.D.

Copyright 1903


why saying, "six word novels ARE bullshit" is bullshit

I met my friend Josh in a punk club one night after I had just graduated college and moved to Boise. We were introduced by a mutual friend, and after Josh revealed that he wrote for the Boise Weekly, I made the rookie mistake of telling him that I am also a writer. Newly-graduated writers: don’t do this. Nobody wants to hear about your writing.

Josh, out of politeness, asked what I liked to write. “Flash fiction,” I said, expecting a normal response like, “Oh, cool. I’ll take a look sometime,” and then an abrupt shift in conversation, because who really wants to read the work of a freshly-graduated zygote with no real writing experience?

But, what happened next was magical. Horrible and magical. Josh proceeded to yell at me over the sounds of the band playing about how much he detests the genre. Josh and I have two different versions of the same story, but the point is, what was supposed to be a casual exchange about two people doing the same thing turned into a long, arduous, draining argument that made me think, “This guy is going to make a great friend.”

Flash fiction, contrary to Josh’s description, is actually comprised of 1,000 words or less. You can check out One of These Days by novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez for one of the best examples of flash fiction ever written. I write flash fiction ranging from 100 to 1,000 words, a project I began in freshman year of college. I was attracted to the structure, not because of brevity, but because of the challenge it presented. Build a world, a character, and a plot in 100 words? I knew this request was possible with 300 pages, but so few words? Now, that’s a real writing task.

Josh’s argument hinges on the fact that flash fiction is too emotionally ambiguous and lacking in plot to be complete without relying on the reader to fill in the blanks. It relies too much on subjective inference to trick readers into thinking they understand the story’s plot. Josh essentially thinks that without enough content, the story isn’t actually a story.

This argument is absurdly wrong for several reasons. Six word stories highlight that a strong message—whether it’s tragic, comedic, or simply intriguing—can be conveyed with only a few brief words. Stories are just that: messages from an author to a reader.

However, so many writers think these messages need to be complete. They don’t.

Writing lives in a liminal space. Fiction is comprised of strands of truth and shards of lies, and looking beyond just the six word, 100 word, or 1,000 word stories, we can see that the art of storytelling doesn’t rely on completion, in terms of completing a plot, but on the storyteller’s ability to convey a message to her reader. Fiction lands within the in-betweens and contradictions of the human condition (and of a story itself).

Since when does writing not live in this liminal space?

The ephemeral. The intangible. The odd, tucked away places in-between dreams. Flash fiction brings us these spots of time in ways most fiction can’t. It lives in the blurry spaces of the mind, where we struggle to piece together a memory or a dream that slowly drains out of us. Flash fiction is liberating; it encapsulates these spaces and drives readers to infer and interpret.

The nonsensical belief that any story must be complete is an arbitrary rule, just like placing a random word limit on a piece or asking yourself to exclude the word the from your vocabulary. Flash fiction begins and ends with limitations, which can force writers to produce some of their best work, like Marquez’s piece linked above. Many writers find the limitlessness of a page comforting, but a large group of us stare at a blank page and think, “Now what?” Beginning with a set value of rules propels us forward and makes our work better.

The story begins with the box. You write around the box, inside the box, and in the margins of the box. You cut the bullshit. You trim the unnecessary. You cling to the concrete. You argue with yourself about what is most important instead of rambling for pages and pages about the soft architecture of her back. In the end, you’re better for it. You can convey a meaningful message in a handful of words. Flash fiction is a new type of concise writing that encourages authors to argue with themselves, eliminate the bravado, and cinch down words tightly into a compact package that slams readers with a world, characters, and (usually) a surprise ending.

Some of the best works of art came from limitation. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was one of the worst reviewed books of all time because she dared herself to write a complete story in only 300 pages (approximately, depending on which edition you purchase). The traditional novel had not yet been popularized, and critics admonished her for her brevity and lack of substance. Can you imagine that? One of the most celebrated novels of all time criticized because it broke the conventions of what good writing should be.

I wish I could go back and tell Shelley, “Do what you need to do to make your best art as long as you’re not hurting anyone. You go, Mary.” The degree of blithering she received from her contemporaries (who were still churning out 1,000 page tomes every few years) about the laziness of her writing was astounding. But, suddenly, people took notice of Shelley’s concise and moving story. The form of the novel took hold, and now it’s the most popular style of storytelling available.

In my opinion, Frankenstein is absolutely complete story, but for its time, it lacked the thorough details Shelley’s contemporaries deemed appropriate to tell a proper story. Shelley argued that writers are supposed to live in the liminal. I say there’s nothing wrong with readers inferring and thinking and interpreting what they want to see from my words. Go for it. I want to hear about what you think you read.

Because it’s not about completing a story, as in wrapping up a plot. It’s about impacting readers. Flash fiction forces great writers like Josh Gross to ask question after question about baby shoes and write an entire article about why he detests the genre so vehemently. It brings readers closer to the bones of a story. It forces them to confront snapshots of time. Authors can’t know for certain—whether they write 100 word stories or 100,000 word novels—if they’ve answered every question a reader might have, and that’s okay. A good story relies on impact, not length.

Flash fiction makes you think. It sparks loud arguments in bars and forms intense new friendships. It asks readers to think for themselves. That’s what good writing—interesting writing—is supposed to do.

You can read or buy Josh’s quality (and often verbose) work on his website, or check out more of my writing at erinnelson.com.