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Flea Show by Josje Weusten





I had expected a shockwave of oohs and aahs to move through the lecture hall at the sight of my childhood picture. Yet the students seem indifferent.

It was the cutest photo I could find, with me being dressed up in a magician outfit, a shiny-cheap black cape wrapped around my chubby neck. The equally dark tall hat with sequined red ribbon is a tad too big. It has dropped down in front of my right eye and I am trying to pull it back up. My older brother Ryan is right behind me, wearing the same attire, his cheeks flushed from gameplay eagerness. He’s holding out an empty jewellery box. The familiar wind-up type, but with a downcast, pale Pierrot instead of the usual twirling, blushed ballerina.

‘As you may have guessed, this is me. Or rather, the four-year-old version of me,’ I joke with a dramatic flair unlike me.

I try to read the students’ responses but the room is too dim. The windows are hidden behind thick crimson curtains to keep the sun from overexposing the image on the projection screen. I can smell them though, the expensive Chai-Lattes-on-the-go on their breaths, unified in a relentlessly steady rhythm—in and out; calm and imperturbable.

Of course, they aren’t moved. What was I expecting? To them this is business as usual. This generation is accustomed to sharing their most private memories with complete strangers. Putting them on display on whatever social media channel they live their lives on, carefully polished like gemstones.

Academia has become peremptorily personal too, the social sciences in particular. My colleagues, most of them much younger, lecture about their life experiences by default. The way they see it, students have a right to know what drives them to do research. And not all motivations are good ones. It’s not enough to find a problem intellectually interesting, a theory challenging, or a concept enlightening. There has to be a personal tale behind it. How else can students become engaged? They need to feel that they, their professors, care.

I have succeeded in dodging the rallying cry for close candour in college circles so far. But with the ratings for my course dropping, I no longer have a choice. The department head made it unmistakably clear: my job is on the line. I have to follow my colleagues’ example.

I anxiously flip through my sheets of notes, taken aback by the students’ indifferent response. The thick, violet craft paper feels rough in my clammy hands. Normally, I lecture off the cuff. Yesterday, however, the fear of forgetting crucial details began to gnaw at me. Authenticity demands specificities after all. So I turned the house upside down in search of empty paper to put them in writing; the lilac cardboard and a set of equally colourful markers were all I found.

Standing in front of the impassive young gaggle, my cautiously felt-tipped words nevertheless still seem too coarse. I continue in fits and starts, ‘…actually, this story isn’t so much about me…it’s about my brother…’

Straining my neck, I look over my shoulder at Ryan’s grainy, magnified face and fall silent.

*

My brother used to be my hero. This photo in particular brings back how Ryan always tried to distract me from whatever else was going on under our roof. He was about to perform one of his infamous flea shows.

Spellbound, I’d watch how Ryan ordered the imperceptible insects to jump out of the music box and balance on a thin chord, stretched between two dining chair legs.

‘Did you see that?’ My brother would shout dramatically. ‘That one did a backflip!’

Although I’d missed it, I’d nod committedly.

There were no actual fleas, obviously. I know that now. Back then, however, his flea circus felt like sheer magic. I can still conjure up the coldness of the terrazzo flooring on which I sat, cross-legged, chin in my hands, observing him. It penetrated right through my terry cloth shorts. It’s my most genuine recollection.

Apart from the picture, there’s no evidence the music box actually existed though. Our father had smashed it to splinters in one of his fits. Lashing out at Ryan for the umpteenth time, he had hurled the music box at the floor, intentionally hitting the speckled nature stone flooring rather than the carpeted ground. The sound of the glass and wood case snapping when he put his foot down to finish the clown off was soul crushing, and, as it turned out, the last straw for Ryan.

Yet even today, my mum denies our father is responsible for sending Ryan over the edge. Our father was smart enough never to focus his violence directly on my brother. There were no visible marks on his body to testify to the tyrannizing truth. Besides, our father seemed anything but brutal to the outside world. With his university degree, well-groomed pronunciation, and golden pinkie ring with engraved family emblem, he managed to deceive everyone, including my mum.

Even I didn’t acknowledge what had happened to my brother at first. I had in fact felt relieved when my mother told me the tragic news, feeling sure that Ryan wasn’t actually dead. After all, the night before he took his life, Ryan had let me in on a secret: he had mastered the ultimate magic trick; he now knew how to turn invisible, to become as elusive as his fleas, uncatchable.

The horrific truth only sank in years later, together with the realisation that I might have been able to save him.

*

‘Professor?’ One of the female students in the front addresses me worriedly.

I haven’t spoken for several minutes. I shake my head and turn my attention back to the students. Bored, most of them have started to talk to each other, their voices whispering, but swelling.

I must say something. Go on as I intended. There’s nothing on the cardboard cheat sheets about my father, just the little anecdote about my brother’s imaginative flea show, and its potential connection to my research on conspiracy thinkers. I merely have to read my notes aloud. Gazing up at Ryan again, I, however, cannot bring myself to it. From this close, my brother looks as if he’ll break up any moment. Yet the light of the projector refuses to release him from its grip.

I hesitantly step out from behind the pulpit. Alarmed by my movements, all at once the students stop talking. Ignoring their suspicion-filled silence, I walk over to the whirring projector, using its glowing power switch as a beacon.

I inhale deeply to reach for the switch.

A split second later, a solemn click echoes through the lecture theatre, and then, as if by magic, Ryan is gone.


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Josje Weusten (PhD) is a writer of speculative and contemporary literary fiction living in Belgium. Her shorts have appeared in Litbreak Magazine and Flash Fiction Magazine. Her work has been nominated for Best Small Fictions 2023. Her first novel Fake Fish, a near-future story on the devastating impact of fake news, will be released on November 14, 2024 with Sparsile Books (Glasgow, UK). She is a Faber Academy London alumna. Next to a writer, Josje is an academic, teaching literature and creative writing at Maastricht University.

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