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Flash Fiction We had a flash of inspiration. What if we devised a contest to showcase the creative talents of Chapman people alongside the power to inspire of works in the University’s Hilbert Museum of California Art?


We had a flash of inspiration. What if we devised a contest to showcase the creative talents of Chapman people alongside the power to inspire of works in the University’s Hilbert Museum of California Art?

All aboard for a literary journey into our inaugural Flash Fiction Competition.

From dozens of entries – all 500 words or fewer – our judges selected three winning stories and one honorable mention, which we present on these pages. Each story kindles a compelling narrative from the spark of an idea found in some facet of a Hilbert painting.

Our first-place honoree, Heather Bourbeau, crafted a story of post-war loneliness after finding her muse in this painting – “Love With a Perfect Stranger” by Robert Maquire. 

“The title of the piece really inspired me. When somebody’s a perfect stranger, it’s all about your projection. And how the recipient of that projection can use that,” said Bourbeau, a two-time nominee for a Pushcart Prize for short fiction who toured the Hilbert virtually, via the museum website.

“There is something about just appreciating the artworks on their own and seeing what other stories they can offer,” she says.

First Place

Love With a Perfect Stranger
“Love with a Perfect Stranger (The Train Station),” 1982, romance novel cover, acrylic on board. The Hilbert Collection.

“Vichy, 1949”

By Heather Bourbeau

Inspired by
“Love With a Perfect Stranger”

They must always believe, if only for a moment, that they alone can satisfy my desires, that they can open a part of my soul no one has ever seen before, that I am rich and young and vaguely Catholic. If there is one thing that I have learned in these few years since the war, it’s that no one likes a reminder of their ill deeds and no man is above flattery.

I find my mark, usually at a café near a train station. Commuters and dreamers are the easiest. One seeks a way out of their daily tedium, the other a playmate in their quest for more, simply more. I order a single espresso, play with a wedding ring I took from the woman, our neighbor, who hid with us for two years before she killed herself. I pretend to rummage for a cigarette in the silver case I inherited by default when no one else was left, then I look around the café, straddling the line between desperate and aloof, between taken and available.

Without fail, a man will come to my rescue, sometimes with the offer of a cigarette, often with the hint at much, much more. I will withhold laughing at how they want to appear so brave, so in control when they were all such cowards, such whimpering little cowards who now embrace nihilism and existentialism as if these will somehow ease the pain, somehow change their histories.

I protest, reject, then lean closer, touch his arm, mourn my husband, and finally say softly, looking into his eyes, “I have missed this – the banter, the companionship.” And in nearly a whisper, “Thank you.” Strength and vulnerability – a most seductive combination in peacetime.

It may last an hour, a night, a month, a year, and in the end, I will have gotten a room, an apartment, a wardrobe, a commitment, a lament, or at least a meal. Before we part, I may look angry, wistful, heartbroken, or confused. I will walk with him to the train station. I will be sure to wear the scarf he gave me, the hat he loved. I will wait until his train arrives. I will cry real tears for all that he, his brother, or his father took from me with firearms or with silence. I will wipe his wet cheek or clutch the letter he spent all night crafting, and I will promise to always remember him. And once the train’s steam is all that is left, I will sleep and shower and eat on his money for days before I realize, perhaps only for a moment, that I might actually miss the companionship, and start again.

bourbeau headshot

Heather Bourbeau is a writer and journalist whose work has been published in numerous magazines and journals, including The Stockholm Review of Literature and The Economist. She has worked with various UN agencies, including the UN peacekeeping mission in Liberia.

Paint Me a Story

By Dawn Bonker

What a crazy idea. Write a very short story for a contest with a deadline looming just one day away. Oh, and the submission must be inspired by artwork exhibited at a special museum. 

Nevertheless, Chapman University screenwriting student Rachel Ledesma ’21 thought she’d give it a try. She learned of our contest in a class – “Writing the Short Story” with Professor Lisa Cupolo – and dashed to the Hilbert Museum of California Art on the west side of campus. A photo-realistic oil painting of a downtown Los Angeles street scene captured her imagination. She was hooked.

That’s how the story “Nada, Nada, Brown” landed Ledesma second place in the Chapman Magazine Flash Fiction Competition.

“That is arguably my favorite street in LA,” Ledesma said of “Broadway, Los Angeles,” the inspiration for her story.

Mark Hilbert speaking to guests at the Hilbert Museum
Mark Hilbert, co-founder of the Hilbert Museum of California Art

Such serendipity helped shape each of the top stories in this inaugural contest, which challenged writers to craft flash fiction inspired by Hilbert Museum artworks. 

The idea of fiction inspired by paintings or illustrations resonates with Mark Hilbert, founder of the University museum that celebrates California Scene painting and other works by artists of the Golden State. Unlike California Plein-Air, which emphasizes impressionistic styles and landscapes, California Scene painting nearly always includes people or signs of their humanity, from Depression-era factory workers to a graceful freeway overpass. Plein-Air is lovely, but Hilbert’s heart is with people.

“As a collector I like to look for paintings that tell a story. Because people really appreciate paintings that tell stories of economic history, social history and in some cases, geographic history – paintings of places that don’t exist anymore,” he says. “People tell stories, and if you have people in your paintings, then you have a story.”

What is Flash Fiction?

Sometimes quirky, often leaning toward high-impact snapshots or scenes, flash fiction challenges writers to do a lot with little. Yes, Twitter comes to mind. But so, too, does this sad little tale that legend attributes to Ernest Hemingway – “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”

Short fiction comes in many sizes and goes by many names, from sudden and micro to dribble and drabble. Among creative writing students, flash fiction is a popular but not easy form for experimentation, says Anna Leahy, Ph.D., director of Chapman’s MFA in Creative Writing program.

“Flash fiction requires focus sentence by sentence and forces decisions about what’s necessary and what can be left out. It often challenges assumptions about plot as well, which can be used to surprise the reader or create surprising depth in brevity,”
Leahy says.

Second Place

painting of Broadway, LA
Patricia Chidlaw, “Broadway, Los Angeles,” 2017, oil on canvas. Gift of the Hilbert Collection to the Hilbert Museum of California Art.

“Nada, Nada, Brown”

By Rachel Ledesma ’21

Inspired by
“Broadway, Los Angeles”

Saw a Guatemalan man get shot off Fourth and Broadway. One bullet between his shoulder blades and he was down on his knees. When he fell onto his face everyone turned and walked away. I stood there watching as the cement turned purple. My skin was darker than his. I ran east on Fourth all the way to Abuela’s house. As she went to kiss me, I told her I saw a man die. No sympathy, just a slap across my left cheek. “No viste nada, mijo. No sabe nada sobre esto.” The way she repeated it like a Hail Mary, I thought she was going to bring out her rosary. Instead, she handed me a tin foil lunch and said: “Vete.” I filled up my Z-car’s tank with her Sunday morning offering money and got onto the 10.

Drove nowhere but straight until traffic became a parking lot and then a wall. I pulled over at a liquor store in Koreatown and called my sister, told her, “Va voy.” Asked the liquor store clerk for the bathroom key and he asked me what type of brown I was, like there was a bad kind. Held my piss in as I got back into my car. I unwrapped the tin foil lunch Abuela had made me and shoved the tortilla sandwich in my mouth as I got onto the 101. Pushed 90 miles per hour all the way, rehearsing what I’d tell the cop who pulled me over, but he never did. I made the sign of the cross over my chest and got off the freeway.

It started raining as I pulled up to my sister’s house on Olympic. I knocked on the front door and she greeted me like a stranger. It had only been a month, but I didn’t recognize her. Her face was powdered pale and her hair was straight. She smelled clean, like expensive shampoo and store-bought soap. “Por qué parece a esto?” I asked her. “Like what?” she said in English. She took me inside and I met her blue-eyed roommate.

My sister cooked me chicken with no spice. I swallowed it without chewing. “Quién eres?” I asked her. “What are you saying, I don’t understand you?” she said, laughing like I made a joke. Then she sat down next to me and whispered in my ear: “Stop speaking Spanish. We’re not Mexican, we’re Greek, or Italian. Whatever they believe more.” One look in her eyes and I knew it was time for me to go. I got back in my Z-car and drove until I reached Broadway. By then it had stopped raining, but the gutters were still flooded with thick, muddy water. Staring out the window at the corner where I saw the man die, I saw the freshly cleaned cement and felt the memory erase. “No vi nada, no sé nada,” I said to myself, knowing I could never pass for Greek, or Italian, or anything but brown.

ledesma headshot

Rachel Ledesma ’21 is a screenwriting major and English minor at Chapman. Her stories have been published in the literary magazine Calliope. 

Hilbert Museum:
A State of Change

By Mary Platt

In the four years since the Hilbert Museum of California Art opened on the Chapman University campus – thanks to the generosity of founders Mark and Janet Hilbert – we’ve grown by leaps and bounds. Starting with an attendance of fewer than 5,000 that first year, we hit a milestone 30,000 visitors in 2019, with museumgoers coming from 36 states and 20 countries. In 2018, the Hilbert Museum was named Best Museum in the county by OC Weekly, and it is now a top-rated Southern California attraction on Yelp and TripAdvisor. 

At the root of this success is the Hilbert Museum’s emphasis on art that tells a story. It’s the story of us – Californians – in all our diversity and complexity. The art in our museum recounts the Golden State’s cultural and historical shifts over more than a century, from the rancho period to the Great Depression, from industrial development in the years leading up to World War II to the growth of Hollywood. 

The Hilbert Museum also has an important academic mission at Chapman, providing study opportunities for students that are interwoven into the academic priorities of the University. Film, art, literature, even science classes visit to absorb the works of these outstanding artists. A vibrant schedule of programming, from live performances to fascinating lectures, continually brings in new audiences. 

The Hilbert Museum will soon undertake a transformative expansion. Construction – set to begin in 2021 – will quadruple our exhibition space to more than 30,000 square feet. There will be permanent galleries exploring the history of California art as well as a gallery of Native American art, American Design gallery, lecture hall, screening room, book shop, coffee bar and more. 

The Hilbert Museum is open Tuesdays-Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.  Admission is free. More information is at hilbertmuseum.org.

Mary Platt is director of the Hilbert Museum of California Art.

Our Judges

Professor James Blaylock teaches in Chapman’s MFA in Creative Writing program. He is one of the literary pioneers of the Steampunk movement, and his short stories, novels and collections have been published around the world. His latest book, “The Gobblin’ Society,” is due out in February. He is currently writing a mystery novel set in an imaginary community akin to the place both he and Chapman call home – Old Towne Orange.

Sarah Nicole Smetana ’09 grew up in Orange, where she wrote songs, played in a few bands and successfully pilfered all of her parents’ best vinyl records. She received her BFA in creative writing from Chapman and her MFA in fiction from The New School. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and their three-legged cat. Her first novel, “The Midnights, was published by HarperTeen/HarperCollins.

Mark Hilbert speaking to guests at the Hilbert Museum

Update: This event has been postponed.

Join Us!

Meet some of the authors and see the artworks that inspired their stories.

Flash Fiction Reception
Friday, April 3
4 to 6 p.m.

Hilbert Museum of
California Art
167 N. Atchison St.

Third Place

painting by Emil Kosa Jr
Emil Kosa Jr., “Cloverleaf Confusion,” 1950s, watercolor on paper. The Hilbert Collection.
Under the Freeway - Biberman
Edward Biberman, “Under the Freeway,” c. 1950, oil on board. The Hilbert Collection.

“The Freeway”

By Ross Loehner ’04 (MLD ’16)

Inspired by
“Under the Freeway” and “Cloverleaf Confusion”

My dad likes to reminisce about racing his old Ford Mustang through the California freeways when he was younger, weaving over and under those giant concrete snakes. It reminds him of 1980s movies set in dark, dystopian worlds, where oddly the technological advancements were from utopian dreams. I was too young to remember racing around with him or watching his ridiculous movies, but trust me when I say I could parrot his stories word-for-word.

I know the chaotic yet ordered circuit of roads that connect city-to-city and culture-to-culture inspires him in his work as a computer scientist. Calling him a nerd for complex networks is a bit of an understatement. I should probably have said inspired, though, as today is his last day at work, and most likely of his career.

To everyone else, he’s retiring, but to me and the ungrateful company he works for, we know he was forced to leave. I don’t ever want to use the term obsolete for a person, but that is essentially how the company views my dad.

To complicate the situation, I actually work alongside my father, but I was not terminated. In the past year, our paths diverged and I just happened to go down the more desirable road. Being young, cheap and hungry for deep learning doesn’t hurt either in this cutthroat world. But the company will never admit to that.

My dad taught me everything I know, and to his credit, when I started I could barely add ones and zeros. I know he’s proud of me and doesn’t blame me for the situation he’s in, but it still has to hurt. I actually think he blames himself, but I also sense a bit of prideful joy.

In the early years of the digital age, Dad was referred to as a coding cowboy, sloppy but effective. He blazed a path for many of us youngsters. I was lucky to not only watch him grow but learned directly from his almost godlike ways. He was amazing, connecting dots that had no business being connected. I remember one time as we worked on a project together, he just sat there staring at me with a smile on his face, pride in his work and as a father.

As I now watch the team pass around pieces of motherboard-shaped cake at his “retirement” party, I can only think of how much I respect this man. I think deep down he knew this day would come from the moment he started; yet he pushed without reservation. I’m not sure if it’s some weird legacy thing or he just knows it’s time to put down the keyboard, but he looks happy … or free.

I know tomorrow Dad will go racing through the California freeways once again and feel the thrill of the over and under. I will hold on to this thought as I sit on this cold table 24/7 processing his code that created me.

Ross Loehner

Ross Loehner ’04 (MLD ’16) brings an array of creative talents to his work in Chapman’s marketing and communications office. His graphic novel illustrations appeared in the 2015 “SPARK” issue of Chapman Magazine.


painting of small small world
“It’s a Small World,” c. 1963, gouache on board. The Hilbert Collection.

“Man of the House”

By James C. Burnham, Ed.D.

Inspired by
“It’s a Small, Small World”

Our bedroom is the only place to hide when Mom’s like this. She never remembers how sharp her words cut or how deeply her blows bruise, then blames everyone else when asked later. But I won’t let her hurt us this time, not me nor my four-year-old sister, Lila.

“We’ll go away soon,” I whisper.

The scent of alcohol mixes with vomit and body odor. A depleted vape pen rests near an extra-large diet soda and a stack of lottery tickets. Landmines, all of them. Mom used to pray to God. Now she prays to scratchers. I’ve never seen someone pray so much.

“Shhh,” I say. “I’ll be right back. Swear to me you’ll be quiet.”

Lila looks up with glistening pale blue orbs. “You said it’s bad to swear.”

“Just promise me you’ll stay here, okay? Don’t make Mom mad when she’s drinking. Do you understand me?”

She bites her lower lip. “Are we going away again?”

“Yes. I promise. But only if you’re quiet.”

“Okay.” She presses her balled fists under her chin and regards me with high hope. I cannot, must not, fail her.

Waiting for the right moment is the trickiest part. Mom raises a bottle and laughs, then spins as she talks into her phone. She nearly stumbles over the warm body at her feet, some guy she met at the corner market and brought home in return for a cigarette.

I watch her sway and laugh and curse. It’s not until she slumps onto the couch that I make my move. I hurry along the far wall and freeze when my bare foot kicks an ash tray. She doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. Either way, I’m free to continue on.

Once outside, I run as fast as I can to the end of the building and up the stairs. I knock.

A white beard answers. The man behind the whiskers chuckles and clears his throat.

“You again?” he says and continues to talk as he crosses the room and returns again. “Don’t worry. I’ll choose a good one this time. There you are now. Be on your way little man.”

The red cover shines under the pale light of the streetlamp. A car honks in the distance. A dog barks.

The door squeaks when I open it again, but no one notices. Mom snores from where she’s passed out.

Lila hasn’t moved and opens up her arms as I enter the room. I return the embrace and settle in beside her.

“What is it?” she asks and snuggles into my lap.

“Let’s see.” I turn the cover toward the nightlight. “It’s called All the Kites in the World.”

She sucks in her breath. “Oh! Sound good!”

“Shhhh,” I say and open to the first page where kids are smiling and holding onto the tails of kites as they are swept across the sky.

“It’s said that dreams can take you to the stars…”

jcburnham headshot

James Burnham, Ed.D., leads the kind of life that keeps his friends wondering what’s next. For the moment, it’s searching for the perfect enchilada while polishing a YA novel about steroid use in high school and a comic book series where cheerleaders blend their routines with kung fu to save the world. Burnham completed a Graduate Certificate in Creative Writing from Stanford University and is a proud member of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley.

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