Round 9 of Three-Minute Fiction has closed and the judging process is now under way. Susan Stamberg reads an excerpt from one standout story, Butterflies, written by Jennifer Dupree. You can read the full story below along with other stories at www.npr.org/threeminutefiction.
For Round 9 of our Three-Minute Fiction contest, we asked you to send us original works of fiction that revolve around a U.S. president, who can be real or fictional. Our winner was "The Dauphin."
He finishes knotting his American-flagged tie and steps back, assessing. The office has taken its toll — he looks older, more jowly, slackened. His hair is grayer than it was — four years? Seven years? — ago. Some days he thinks it's his father looking back at him and he waves, two-fingered.
His wife is in the kitchen, sipping a cup of coffee, the rest of the pot keeping warm. He crosses the room to pour himself a cup but stops midway, thinking of something else. "Is today my speech?"
Avis smiles. "It could be."
He takes a piece of bread from the bag, a plate from the cabinet. And then he stands, the bread limp and pliable in his hand, wondering what he meant to do with it.
These days, thoughts slip in and out like butterflies. If he tries too hard to capture one, it flaps against his skull, escapes beneath his eyelids.
Avis comes and stands beside him, slides the bread into the toaster, presses the lever on the side.
Alan takes the deep breaths he learned to do way back when he was anxious before a speech. "Toast," he says, on an exhale. The toaster dings. Avis hands him butter and a knife and he is relieved and satisfied with how it all comes together. "It's the speech on the deficit, isn't it?"
There's a wrongness to the kitchen, the way the light falls unfamiliar, overly white. Avis is still wearing her blue-daisied house dress. There should be a cluster of people. He shouldn't be the only one dressed. He pauses, listening for the expedient footsteps of his chief of staff. And then, a fluttering in his throat, nerves like he used to get before big crowds. "We're still in Washington, aren't we?"
Avis nudges his toast closer to him. "Once president, always president. Right?"
"Not strictly speaking. No."
Avis pours him a cup of coffee, sugar and cream. At least he still remembers what he likes. And there, the butterfly alights, its wings still, and Alan Prestwick knows they are not in the White House any longer. He is not currently the president.
"What do people think of me?" He asks, meaning Am I pathetic?
"Everyone loves you."
He brushes toast crumbs off his knee and the butterfly flutters. A hum of untruth runs beneath what Avis has just said. But what was it? He looks at her solid-blue eyes and then he drinks his coffee. "Are we in New Hampshire today?"
"We can work on your speech, if you like."
He nods and she produces a yellow tablet, a blue pen.
"You could start with a joke," she says.
He can see thousands of jokes in his mind, pages and pages of funny stuff and then, his mind turns over and all the pages go blank. He closes his eyes and the pages become wings.
He slides the paper toward Avis. "Why don't you write down a few thoughts?" He pushes away from his half-eaten toast, his cooled coffee. "I need to make some calls."
Avis stands with him. "Let me help you."
And then the butterflies are flames and they are in every inch of his brain. He screams, "I'm the president of the United States!" He pounds his fists into his head and for a blackened moment the butterflies are stunned. Avis, too, stands stunned with her hands on the table, flat-white, red at the knuckles. Alan takes his hands from his head, flaps his wrists and fingers. He touches the back of her hand with his fingertips, alighting, if just for a moment.