For a while, I’ve been contemplating flash essays as fireworks. It isn’t difficult to imagine the shortest of micros, say 100 words or less, as a salute: a bang so loud and a flare so quick, it bumps in your chest, a physical response to the discomfort of it. I can see the more traditional flash as peony, the most common of pyrotechnics: a single bloom that bursts then swells into meaning, unfolding while we read.

Lately, though, I’m attracted to flash essays that act like ghosts—firework shells that contain multiple peonies that burst in layers, each subsequent flare seeming to appear from nowhere. How, I ask myself, do writers generate ghost narratives—a turn we didn’t see coming, an unexpected destination?

This type of flash seems to hinge on a jump forward, sometimes the writer situating the essay’s conclusion in a time zone we didn’t anticipate. Brenda Miller’s “The Shape of Emptiness” opens with the background info we need—the mother of one of her students has died, and his creative writing class rallies around him, a bright thread of tenderness, when he returns to class. Then Miller describes several students giving presentations—one girl, then another girl, and then the boy who lost his mother, who manages to show his “emptiness” using Play-Doh as a prop. The story has moved chronologically, but in the penultimate paragraph, Miller launches ahead, years from now, when the boy is a man, married, with children, a future she has seen through Facebook. Our ability to meet him as father, holding his own babies, completes the story: now we know what full means. It’s a lesson in contrasts that Miller’s students, back in the narrative classroom, could not grasp; they are consumed in the moment by emptiness. The deeper story emerges from knowledge they have not yet learned.

In “I Remain Very Sorry for What I Did to the Little Black Kitten,” Jenny Boully recounts her childhood struggles to comprehend her mother’s being “away,” a circumstance no one in her family talked about. In her attempts to love while suffering this abandonment, Boully adopts a kitten then re-enacts “abandonment” by dumping it—not because her father insists they can’t keep it but because she will not saddle him with another burden, and so she writes a narrative, a lie, in which “a friend” promises to care for the kitten. In reality, the narrator and her sister ditch the kitten in the exact location where their mother previously threw a family pet out the car window.

This narrative could end with the third-to-the-last paragraph: although I entertained thoughts that someone found [the kitten] and treated her nicely until she got old, I know that no one did. Or it might conclude with her depiction of the kitten’s “preciousness,” a memorial of sorts, in the penultimate paragraph. But it’s the leap forward in the last paragraph that gives the story its unforeseen ending. Now, a mother herself, it’s the catch of grief, not guilt, that stings to the bone after her three-year-old daughter, without provocation, says little cats like milk, they like to lick it from their little milk bowls. It’s not the cruelty perpetrated against the kitten years ago that hits us, but the sharp edge of a little girl’s innocence that materializes when she doesn’t yet know what cruelty humans can render. In this moment, we recognize that Boully may only now understand what she lost back then.

In Joe Oestreich’s “Sunrise,” the second-person narrator and his sister transition their mother from independent living to a care facility due to Alzheimer’s. Already, their mother forgets to bathe, to eat, and can’t remember what she read the day before (here is a hint about books and essays), and because neither the narrator nor his sister have the wherewithal to adopt their mother’s dog, we—Oestriech and “us” the reader—hope the mother forgets the dog exists, because erasure will be easier than admitting we’ve left it, too old for adoption, at an animal shelter.

The conclusion of this essay doesn’t turn on the moment Oestreich has foreshadowed—the moment when the mother asks about her dog. Instead, it concludes in the imaginary location where the mother might, someday, somehow, come across a printout of the essay we’re reading, the one Oestreich is writing. It’s a jump that works because Oestreich writes in second person (making us complicit) and because he mentioned earlier how proud the mother is of the books you’ve written. Too, in passing, he stated that when you lose your memory, every story you read is new, its revelation hitting again, afresh. Mother may be excited to read this narrative we’ve written, but when she does, she’ll recall her dog and much more. And every day, it will cut new and clean. Because, as it turns out, this story is not so much about the dog, or mom, but rather the wounds we cause when writing family traumas.

In Erin Murphy’s “White Lies,” the narrator shows her childhood classmates tormenting students who looked different from them—whether not white or too white. When the new girl in town, an albino they saddle with nicknames like Casper, Chalk Face, and Q-Tip, tells everyone her father works at a candy factory and can provide them with as much candy as they want, the cruelty takes a different shape: now the students fake friendships with the new girl in order to take from her what they want: Reese’s Cups, Baby Ruth bars, and Hubba-Bubba bubble gum. The ending should surely unfold somewhere in the school cafeteria, or the girls’ restroom, but instead, the final paragraph leaps forward: What about me? the narrator asks. Did Murphy refuse to participate in the candy grab? Or did her mother catch her with her own loot and punish her? Or—and here’s the revelation we couldn’t foresee in the story’s core location at school—did the narrator see or imagine catching the new girl and her mother at the grocery store, buying candy to fulfill everyone’s orders and keep up the charade? Which white lie did Murphy embrace to save herself?

A ghost shell makes for an effective way to create unexpected insight and closure for any flash essay. Maybe model a time jump, leaping forward several decades. Or move to a seemingly unrelated location or land on an image barely visible earlier in the story. Or speculate a memory, a scene, the moment that could have saved you. Or perhaps, like Kent Shaw in “How to Fall in Love for Real,” spend the essay enumerating all the people and things you thought you loved at age twenty-two—a sales clerk, your best friend’s wife, a feminist from a personal ad, every waitress, as well as writing, rain, spring, a good sandwich—then end on the real facts of your life, the genuine experiences you had but failed to notice back then. Let the reader applaud the initial flare and taper of the ghost essay but gasp in surprise as it blooms again, when its ending lights up the sky anew.

Leslie Jill Patterson teaches in the creative writing program at Texas Tech University, where she serves as editor of Iron Horse Literary Review. Her prose has appeared or is forthcoming in Kenyon ReviewTexas MonthlyFourth GenreGulf CoastThe RumpusHotel Amerika, and Hunger Mountain, among others. Her awards include an Embrey Human Rights Fellowship; the Everett Southwest Literary Award; a Soros Justice Fellowship; the Richard J. Margolis Award for Social Justice Writing; and a Pushcart Prize. Since 2009, she has worked as the case storyteller for public defenders representing indigent men and women charged with capital murder and facing the death penalty across the American South.