portion of the artwork for Jennifer A. Howard's short stories

Flat Stanley Crime Stories
Jennifer A. Howard

Flat Stanley plays Crack the Case
on a road trip, asks the important first questions: Current day? Human or animal or fictional character? Stabbed shot bludgeoned electrocuted burned drowned? He can suss out the trickiest of causes of death but motive always stumps him, even when you tell him stories about heartbreak and theft and hitting and fear and greed and how sometimes people leave people stranded. At rest stops, you call home, check on the kids, promise you’ll be back as soon as you can. Dad can reach the yogurt in the fridge, wake him up. You give Flat Stanley clue after clue, but he has never been in love, has not yet figured out reasonable grounds to hurt somebody.

Flat Stanley promises when you are murdered
he will guide the police toward your killer. He will tell them you’d seen enough Forensic Files to know how marriage works: two pretty children, new mom friends, less job. A mistress or two for your husband, a resentment-fuck baby in your belly before he takes you to the gun range or invents the term “cliff-hiking” or starts a house fire during his night shift at the plant. But Flat Stanley’s word is not scientific evidence. If you won’t leave him, he says, at least scratch at your murderer’s skin or leave a bite mark or amass handwriting samples in a locked box to counter the faked suicide note. Cover yourself in traces. You, always saying OK it’s OK come back, will not inspire investigation alive. Woman after woman after woman has known her murder was coming, felt his boot on her back and made him breakfast the next morning.

Flat Stanley solves a mystery
understands only years later why you left. Sometimes we need to wait for technologies to catch up, for someone to discover how to match DNA, to link fingerprint databases across states, to develop hair or tire tread or ballistics recognition techniques. Though don’t wait too long; all certainties become discredited eventually. Next year, we will overturn convictions based on carpet-fiber and blood-spatter evidence. Today’s exactitude is tomorrow’s junk science. So hurry, Flat Stanley: feel better, or cry it out, whichever makes sense now. There is such a tiny window of time for believing any proof.

Flat Stanley writes a eulogy for Peter Thomas
lingers especially on how our narrator would rehearse his Forensic Files scripts with his wife, Stella, the night before recording. Imagine loving someone enough to listen to this kind of bedtime story, Flat Stanley says. Stella closes her eyes and Peter reads, Inside the bag was a woman’s head. She might have fallen asleep learning it takes eight to ten people to follow someone discreetly, that only a handful of labs in the country test dog DNA, that it is not unheard of to fire two shots into your own skull. But Flat Stanley doesn’t worry about Stella’s dreams. Fifty years earlier, Peter returned to her after the war with a Purple Heart and ready to give the rest of us bad news kindly, to narrate with empathy. He said, if you are talking about a horse, picture a horse in your mind. For us, so we can handle what’s hard, he recorded the instructions for portable defibrillators, he walks us through the Holocaust Museum. His voice surely whispered to Stella in other ways, though, maybe after he finished rehearsing. Maybe she didn’t fall asleep until much later, until he’d told her another kind of story, picturing his mouth on hers as he said, I am kissing you. He imagined his hand unbuttoning her nightgown, and there it was: Stella’s heart pumping and pumping with all kinds of life.

Flat Stanley visits the castle wildlife gallery
where a plaque sometimes credits the royal who shot a stuffed bird (Prince Albert took down a particularly handsome pelican) and the rest, like the baby partridges, he is left to wonder who murdered.

Flat Stanley sees his Ikea MALIN RUND
duvet on TV on the bed of a fictional serial killer. He and the serial killer have the same taste in bedding! Or he and the show’s production designer have the same taste in bedding. Or he and the production designer, sinking into the mind of a fictional serial killer shopping at Ikea, have the same taste in bedding. Would an actual serial killer have chosen this bedding—white with gold and rosy abstract apples—at Ikea? Could a serial killer have been shopping when Flat Stanley was there, selecting his BRUSALI wardrobe in the same walnut finish, his KNUBBIG table lamp with etched hummingbirds, his ISFJORDEN floor mirror? Flat Stanley hopes his duvet situation is a coincidence, that otherwise he has been drawn to purchase the flatware, the bath mats, of the good, but how can he know what desires he has in common with serial killers, with production designers. He has loved somebody after they told him to stop, and he has failed to love somebody who asked nicely. Only two weeks into his Duolingo course, he’s learned the Swedish words for apple and orange are similar: äpple and apelsin. Which probably means at Ikea they don’t believe comparing apples to oranges is the dumbest thing in the world.

Jennifer A. Howard’s Comments

I’m not alone in being a woman interested in true crime lately. The world is a dangerous place, and I see a lot of us gathering around podcasts and TV shows that look all this gendered terror in the eyeball. Writing about grownup violence through the perspective of Flat Stanley (a kids’-book character with literally no depth who gets mailed around the world) has been my way of figuring out how to still leave the house, go on a date with a new person, let go of the hand of a child, despite everything outside ready to pounce. Safely and bravely as you can, I guess.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 48 | Spring/Summer 2017