Your Monday Prompt: Photogenic Stranger

Hey writers,

Everyone have a good weekend? After several million recommendations over the last few years, I finally caved and my girlfriend Audrey and I hunkered down and tackled part of the first season of Dexter—Showtime’s eerie/hilarious series about, well, a good serial killer who kills bad serial killers who kill good people. Around episode four, a plot arises involving old photographs—which prompted me to look through some of mine. As I did, the following prompt developed. (Editor’s Note: That pun was unintentional, so after suspiciously eyeballing it for a few minutes, I’m going to let it stand. I was also going to bring an awkward family photo from a decade or two ago to post as creative fodder, but my flash drive isn’t working, so you have been spared.)

Moreover, Writer’s Digest online guru Brian Klems and I are going to sift through the stories from the Kick-Off Challenge today, and we’ll announce the winner—and his or her swag—tomorrow, so stay tuned.

Hope all is well in your writing world,


PROMPT: Photogenic Stranger
In 500 words or less, funny, sad or stirring:

You develop a roll of film, an old roll from about 10 years ago, and sit down to sift through the photos. As you do, you stop and analyze a figure lurking in the background of a vacation photo. You drop the pictures, aghast, and gasp for air.

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  3. Monica Martin

    There was a face in the photo. It was Michael. But Michael had died six months before the photo was taken. Well, according to the timestamp on the bottom left corner of the photos, anyway. Michael’s face wasn’t faint or see-through. He looked as solid as the rest of us who had gathered that day for Maggie’s birthday. Even my parents showed up, which I really wasn’t expecting. Michael was the baby, and all three of them- Michael and my parents- had been extremely close, and his death was hard on them. It was hard on all of us, but they suffered the most. They had a high respect for military, encouraged him to join, and were just so proud when he received his orders. I was proud, too. He looked so handsome in his uniform. He was nervous, but he wasn’t about to let our parents know that. He was God to them then. When he was in the Marines, they respected him more than at any other time in his life, more than any other person they knew. That’s why his death had been such a crushing blow to them. That’s why some days they wouldn’t- or couldn’t- leave the house. They felt they were to blame. They even missed Peter’s wedding three months later, when Michael was to have been the best man. My parents claim it was disgraceful to have the wedding so soon after Michael’s funeral. But we all knew they just couldn’t bear to look up at the wedding ceremony and see the empty place where Michael should have been. Peter didn’t get a replacement best man. There was a knock at the door. Speak of the devil. It was Peter. I showed him the photo.
    "Hey, that’s Michael." he said, smiling.
    "Yeah, but look at the date."
    Peter looked, and his eyes widened. "Holy Jesus," he breathed. "This is six months later."
    I nodded. "But how is that possible? What’s going on here?"
    Peter was quiet for a moment, then said, "Maybe a different photo of him was superimposed on this one."
    "But there are no other photo on the roll of Michael. They are all of Maggie’s birthday party. There are no other photos in the stack that are like this."
    Peter picked up the stack of photos and began rifling through them. His face seemed determined. When he reached the end, he turned to me.
    "I have a friend who develops his own film. We’ll see what he has to say."
    Twenty minutes later, we were sitting in the living room of photographer Thomas D. He was closely examining the photographs- glasses on, glasses off, standing by the window, next to the living room lamp, in the kitchen, in the bathroom. Finally he came back into the living room, sat down, and looked at us over the rims of his glasses.
    "What kind of camera did you use?" Thomas asked.
    "Are you sure?"
    "Positive. I don’t think any of us ever owned a camera until the digital ones came out. Why?"
    "This image of your brother has its own light source."
    "Meaning the light on his face doesn’t come from the flash, or the other light inside the room of this photo. It makes its own light source."
    "Again, meaning…?"
    "It looks like your brother is saying hello."

  4. duane sosseur

    …..I mistakenly left off the title to my story here…
    It’s called "And the train howled on"

    Might be over 500 words, like most of my stuff but I just can’t seem to cut anything else out of them. It’s like I reach a point where they won’t take any more editing. Anyway, great prompt! Thanks

  5. S. Petherbridge

    “It just couldn’t be, “she thought to herself as she reached again for the photo. Her eyes scoured the shadowy figure as it stepped for cover, just a split second too late apparently. Lizzie hadn’t seen a thing when she’d snapped the picture, the morning after photo of a hung over recently engaged coed who had been coerced into one final fling. One last time before tying the knot had seemed so harmless and easy to forget at the time, and even now hard to recall. That night in the bar and the pair that Lizzie insisted they dance with, invite back to the tent, and then of course the inevitable. She had had the good fortune of getting her man to the tent first and thereby forcing Liz and her pick into the back of the guy’s car. That much she could remember, but not much else had been particularly momentous or memorable. They did have the courtesy to leave early in the morning without making a big to do about seeing them again or getting a number or whatever else. That she had appreciated.
    But now, this photo and the sulky figure changed everything. She couldn’t remember the guy’s face or clothes that she’d been with that night, but the clothes on the silent figure brought back a flurry of memories. The shabby truckers cap with the mullet emerging like a ducks plume from behind. And of course the tattered military jacket that he always insisted on wearing when he hunted.
    He was supposed to be hunting. He’d insisted on it, despite the coming wedding and the expense it would bring. It was only after he planned to go south with his brothers that Liz had had the bright idea of going north for “one last “fling” that had resulted in something never considered until it just “happened” as these things so often will.
    She knew she shouldn’t have developed this god damned roll of film! She’d actually thought of pulling it from its canister and exposing it to the bright afternoon sun, thereby eliminating any incriminating evidence of a roach, bottle or whatever other vice they’d indulged in so long ago, but the enticement of seeing her long lost figure in the bikini she remembered yet today was more than she could resist.
    And now the sight of Kevin lurking the morning after made her blood run cold as she questioned why he’d never confronted her on what he’d surly seen and heard, and why he’d gone ahead with the wedding as if he knew nothing. Her surprise and fear then turned to anger and resentment as she wondered where else he’d since lurked, and what else he’d since seen as he crept around silently scrutinizing and judging.
    “What have you got there darlin” Kevin bellowed as the kitchen door slammed shut behind him, “pictures of the Sunday school program?” Her heart leapt to her throat as the offending photo again fluttered to the floor.

  6. De Jackson

    As the photo falls from shaking hand, she looks again at the shadowy figure of the man behind the palm tree.

    How could it be?

    Trembling finger traces the face of the other man in the snapshot, sitting in sunlight next to her younger, smoother self on the silken sand of their honeymoon beach. The grinning newlywed girl in the photo will have four precious years swimming in those kind oceanic eyes, that wry, winsome smile, and she will cherish every one. She will laugh with him daily, and cry every night after the accident that steals him from her life.

    She looks again at the verdant palm tree frozen in time, then up at the familiar hues of her own living room.

    How could it be?

    A thousand words run through her head, course through her veins, but above them all, one question pierces her through and through:

    How could the husband on her couch – father of her children, keeper of her heart – be standing in the shadows of her life ten years ago, five years before she ever met him?

  7. S.E.Ingraham

    Alright, alright – get a grip, I say to myself. You didn’t see what you think you saw. That’s all. You’re not crazy, after all. Not that crazy anyhow.

    So why don’t you just hunker down and find that picture, then? I will, I will – give me a minute. You are talking to yourself, you realize that right?

    The silence is eerie even as I stop talking to myself. I can hear that old cuckoo clock ticking in the kitchen and look at my watch, hoping it’s nowhere near an hour when that idiotic bird is going to pop out and do his thing. But really, I know I’m just trying to avoid the inevitable.

    Good grief, my hands are shaking – will you look at that? I hesitate to look at the next picture in the pile but take a sneaky peek at it and yeah, what was I thinking? It’s just Mom and Pop and the dog. And that’s it.

    I tell myself to stop being so wussy and get down on my hands and knees, determined to pick up the other photo. I can see it under the couch, easily within reach, but I’ll be damned if I can make my hand just go under there and scoop it out.

    What the hell? I tell myself it’s too far to reach with just my hand and get the fly-swatter from the wall by the door. I don’t let myself think about not wanting to touch the thing.

    Back down I go. Is it my imagination or has the thing moved further back? Cause now I definitely cannot reach it with just my hand. In fact, I have to lie flat on the floor and stretch my arm out with the swatter extended fully just to move it. Even then I can barely make contact and it takes a couple of swipes before I can pull it toward me.

    Finally, it’s out in the open and right side up at that. I take a quick glance hoping to eliminate the problem right off the bat. Instead, I confirm what I saw the first time.

    Grabbing the picture, I take it over near the lamp and examine it closely. There’s no doubt about it – right behind Pop, my brother is making rabbit ears, the way he always used to whenever anyone was taking a picture.

    The thing is, and I sit down heavily on the arm of the couch at the thought, my brother had been dead a good three years when this shot was taken.

  8. Jason Dougherty

    The temptation had been too much to resist. He had to develop it. Fortunately Longs still had the technology to develop film. He sealed the cartridge in the provided envelope, wrote his address on the outside, and paid the cashier at the front counter.

    Five days later he sat in his kitchen and tore open the envelope, excited to see if any exposures had survived the attic heat over the past decade. There were only five.

    The first photo showed Ron at sixteen years old, standing next to his father, holding up a large brook trout. He remembered the trip well, though he couldn’t remember who had taken the photo. Ron’s joy quickly faded into melancholy when he remembered it was that very fishing trip that his father had died.

    He swallowed as the memory surfaced. His father had insisted that they catch just one more. He had waded out too far and the current caught him. His body was never found.

    Ron moved on to the second photo. This one pictured Ron playing cards with his grandmother in her mobile home.

    “Interesting,” he said, looking closer. Ron looked to be eighteen years old in the photo. When he was eighteen his grandmother suffered a stroke, landed in the hospital for a week, and passed away. This was probably her last photo.

    Had they really waited two years before using the same roll of film again? His mother must have taken it, but they weren’t looking at the camera in the picture.

    The third photo made him stop. It showed Ron in his favorite recliner, holding a can of Dr. Pepper, and watching TV in his living room. It looked recent.

    Ron lived alone and rarely had company. Who could have taken this photo? To make matters worse, the film had been locked away in his mother’s attic for years. It was impossible.

    Ron stood and rummaged through a drawer in the kitchen until he found a small magnifying glass. Returning to the stack of photos, he looked closer. He moved the magnifying glass over the pictured television set. It showed him watching the series premier of “Timelock,” a sci-fi drama that aired its first show just yesterday. The photo was taken yesterday.

    “There’s no way…” Ron’s jaw quivered. He set the magnifying glass down and moved slowly to the next picture in the series.

    This one showed Ron sitting in his kitchen, browsing through a small stack of photos. His hands trembled and a droplet of sweat ran down his brow.

    “This can’t be happening.” His eyes remained fixed, unable to look away.

    After a few seconds of panic he looked closer. Behind him in the photo was the dark outline of a figure creeping toward him, knife in hand.

    Ron stood abruptly, dropped the photos on the table, and gasped as his chair toppled to the floor. He spun around just long enough to see that the photo had not lied.

    The final photo showed only black.

  9. Diamond

    My husband and I had taken a vacation—a little trip to, you know get the fire burning again. We had talked about divorce on and off for a few years, went to counseling, had another baby…well, the list goes on and this was a last chance for our family.

    I remember driving to the airport, nervously excited as I glanced through shy eyelashes at my husband of fifteen years. I wondered how I could share a home, a family, a bed with this man that I barely knew. I had known him once, loved him once, wanted to build a life with him. That was before three kids and job transfers, among other things, had crept in and separated us.

    Until now, I hadn’t really realized what a buffer our kids were for us. Dad wants to know where his tennis shoes for mowing the lawn are. Tell him they’re in the closet with the snowsuits hanging in it. All of our conversations were delivered by the kids, monitored by the kids, or focused around the kids—schoolwork, sports, events, rules and regulations.

    Now, here I was alone with him, nothing to say. It was like the first date from hell…uncomfortable, awkward and the drinks hadn’t even shown up yet…no wait, it was worse because at the end of the night, he was still my husband who I had made “for better or for worse, ‘til death do us part” vows with.

    He brought my worries to a close and I sighed and settled into routine. He picked up the newspaper he had tucked into his briefcase (yes, that was coming on vacation) and absorbed himself in it before the second class even got on the plane. I pulled out my book I had snuck in (Mary Higgens Clark, oh, how I love those mysteries full of the passion that didn’t exist in my life of sliced deli cheese and CapriSun juice drinks), and realized how we had made it through the years—peacefully not dealing with each other.

    That should tell you what the vacation accomplished. We divorced amazingly soon after Cabo, both contentedly ignoring the issues. I went to his wedding and took the kids home afterwards.

    Now I’m just going through some old things and I came across an old Nike box, stuffed with old photos. It was these pictures of Cabo that made me remember. I gingerly picked one up, thinking of how that vacation could have been. We were at dinner, behind a crisp linen cloth with the sun setting behind us on the water.

    Adrenaline shot through my body, making my hands shake uncontrollably and I gasped, dropping the box and scattering pictures everywhere. I raised a hand to my hot face, unsure where to plunk myself and I turned in a circle and finally flopped onto the floor cross-legged. The picture had unwittingly captured Samantha, his new wife, exchanging a knowing look with him from the table located on the left edge of the photograph.

  10. Mark James

    When I got home with my pictures from our Haunted Houses Across America tour, I wasn’t sure I’d see anything more than blurs and memories, not after the roll of film spent ten years in my desk drawer.

    Back then, we were three kids fresh out of college. Just one summer stood between us and the real world. Me, Ally and Jeff pooled our money, took off in Jeff’s beat up Chevy.

    We stayed in cheap hotels, ate road kill burgers at diners so greasy, the flies slid down the walls, and tramped through famous haunted houses. Jeff proposed to Ally the morning after we slept in the Amityville house.

    Tenure seduced me, reeled me into a job. I shed my dreams like old skin, bought me and Ally twin pink phones, lost the roll of film. I kept thinking how it was funny to find the film after all these years. I wondered how it rolled from the back of my desk drawer.

    I flipped through the stack of pictures, and passed it the first time. But I caught something, went back to make sure.

    The waitress in Nick’s Eats took the picture the morning Jeff proposed. There was Ally and me and Jeff. Ally’s smile beamed across the years, as if she hadn’t been dead three days.

    I remembered the baby rattle. Just before the waitress snapped the picture, Ally grabbed it off the counter, pointed it at Jeff like a gun. Afterwards, she told me it was for good luck. I had to look really close. She was holding something pink, but it wasn’t a baby rattle.

    I hunted down my magnifying glass, tried to hold it steady over Ally’s hand in the picture. Even with all the shaking, I could make out what she was holding.

    Five days ago, Ally told me that finally, after all this time, she was pregnant. She more scared than I’d ever seen my friend. Jeff would be furious, she said. The last thing he wanted was a baby. I told her she was being silly. She told me I didn’t know Jeff. Why didn’t I listen?

    When I dropped her off that night, she told me, “I’m telling him tonight. Call me. You won’t forget will you, Kat?”

    I didn’t forget. I got busy, put off the call ‘til the weekend. Just two days later, my friend was dead.

    I looked at the pink, slim line phone in Ally’s outstretched hand for a long time. It was the twin of the one in my purse. I pulled out my phone, and pressed two, Ally’s speed dial number.

    The phone rang once. Sure I was losing my mind, I said, “Hello?”

    “Oh my God, Kat, you figured it out.”

    I gasped for air, dropped the picture of my dead friend. “Ally, you’re – -”

    “You saw the picture. I knew you would. Make them do an autopsy. He poisoned me, and our baby,” she added with a sob.

  11. Steven Brant

    Dear Sam,

    Remember film?

    Y’know, that stuff that used to be in cameras before digital? I didn’t remember it either. It was a fad before I was born, right? Faded out by the time I was five.

    Anyway, Sam, I found a roll of it last week. It was in a cardboard box of old stuff the Martins gave me when they kicked me out. It sucks, by the way, when your fosters kick you the week you turn 18 cause they can’t collect anymore and can’t turn you out either. I went to the library and snagged a computer. It’s amazing what you can find on the Net, of course. There are a bunch of outfits that knew how to turn it into pix. I still had John Martin’s card number; he gave me the box and the boot and so much more, so it seemed only fair.

    This morning I got the link at the library. That’s a good place to hang during the day; you can read all day or use the computers and no one cares. Not like the Martins, that’s for sure. Here’s the link. My account is lostchild, password’s your name all lowercase. You still have until tomorrow before you ride it, right? Please look, if they let you use the computer one more time.

    They were taken somewhere nice, not this hellhole town. Maybe California. I don’t remember any beaches, but the blond four-year-old is me. Ain’t blond anymore, that’s for sure. Black and blue’s more like it.

    You look pretty good in them. For an eight-year-old, anyway. Maybe you remember where it was? Doesn’t matter now.

    Look at #14. Blow it up. That’s you and me in the foreground, but check out the dude in the shadows at upper right.

    What was Matt Harlin doing in that photo? You swore you’d never seen him before. In front of everyone, and they believed you.

    Then I was throwing up. Couldn’t breathe. Didn’t make it to the bathroom, but the library folks were nice about it. It brought back the memories.

    You knew, didn’t you. You knew who that guy really was. You knew he was putting it to me when I was a freakin’ four-year-old.

    It suddenly makes sense. You couldn’t have done the stuff they said, the stuff you admitted. Not the Sam I knew. Not unless there was a reason.

    Was I the reason?

    Sam, Sam, I am so sorry. You did it for me, and didn’t say a thing.

    I’m so sorry I won’t be there tomorrow night. I couldn’t bear to watch you ride the needle, now especially knowing you’re riding it for me.

    I’ll never forget you , Sam, or what you did. I couldn’t say thank you before, cause I didn’t know.

    Thank you. Thank you for killing the bastard. But it really should be me, not you, strapped to the table tomorrow night.

    I love you, brother. See you on the other side.

  12. Patsy Colter

    Oh my gosh, that’s my Dad! He followed us to the lake that summer! I had no idea he ever found out about Ray and me and our weekend. That terrible weekend when Ray drowned, I thought it was an accident, but the picture clearly shows Dad pushing him over that steep cliff.

    All these years nothing came out about him being there. I knew he hated Ray but killing him! I was so distraught for months and he consoled me as a Father would. Ray’s death changed my whole future,I stayed home instead of going off to college. I became the joke of the town, the girl who never amounted to anything. Daddy’s little girl!!

    Now Dad has cancer and I am taking care of him. Should I tell him before he dies that I know what he did or let him take his terrible secret to his death? I could easily take a pillow and snuff out his breath and no one would ever know. Could I destroy his life as he did mine?

  13. J. Alvey

    You develop a roll of film, an old roll from about 10 years ago, and sit down to sift through the photos. As you do, you stop and analyze a figure lurking in the background of a vacation photo. You drop the pictures, aghast, and gasp for air.

    Yes, it’s me.

    And I am as surprised as you, maybe more surprised. I figured, I guess, that you would have caught on before now, you being the smart one.
    But here I am, eyeballing you through the window of your shabby little room, amazed, really, that you are just now catching on. The smart one.


    When you graduated from law school I was there, standing next to you, nearly idolizing you, the smart one. Me and Keri. We were there, I’m sure you remember. Remember?

    Do you remember how we would go to dinner? You and me and Keri and some girl you brought along, someone you were testing out? And how you paid for everything, shrugging off the attempts of the teacher on a teacher’s salary to contribute to or even cover the bill from time to time?

    I assume you recall now, looking at those photos, that Keri and I nearly married before you came into that picture? I assume you recall that I accepted it with grace, the loss of my one true love, the addition to your accolades and trophies?

    Yes, it’s me.

    There in the background at the Grand Canyon, part of the honeymoon that you and Keri celebrated. It seemed to last for an eternity, your honeymoon. Cost me everything I had to follow along, to see what it might have been had it been mine.

    Teacher’s salary, you know. Thank God it happened in the summer.

    Yes, it’s me.

    I’m the one. Her accident was not an accident. Her long flight to the bottom of the canyon, you might say, if you were still a lawyer, was pre-meditated.

    Without a parachute.

    And you, the smart one.

    Yes, it was me. That cocaine bust? I planted that in your briefcase and then called the cops on one of those Hotlines to alert them and soon enough you were busted and debarred.

    The robbery that took whatever you had left of Keri and the past and all that was of value to you? That was me.

    The guy that offered you that first drink and then the second and the third and then the fourth? I paid him to do that. And you, the smart one.

    The homeless lady running you over with her grocery cart? That was me.

    The arrest on that one was a bonus. I did not know you were doing cocaine. I did not know you were filled with rage. How ironic. I thought it would take longer. You being the smart one.

    I’m looking at you now, through the window of your shabby room, deciding what to do.

    More precisely, I am deciding when to do it. I like you looking at the pictures. I like you knowing that I was there.

    Yes, it’s me.

  14. Loveskidlit

    Then I pick the photo up again and hold it until my hands stop shaking. There she was again. Her pink arms with a slight tan, her favorite bikini dragging at the hips. Her hair, lightened by the sun, a tousled and chlorinated mop. For a moment, I could smell all of it: her hair, her sunscreen, her strawberry glitter lip balm, and underneath it all, the dusky scent of my little girl, the same as always. I hadn’t even noticed she had stepped into this picture at all.

    On this day, the photograph was of the popsicle vendor. I was new to scrapbooking and thought the element of whimsy would suit. The man’s white shirt and jaunty red and white striped awning looked so old fashioned.

    Jenna is not marching straight for him. She stands on one leg, her other foot scratching some mosquito bite on her ankle. She is biting her lip, suddenly uncertain. I thought I had seen all the photos of Jenny there were, or would ever be. I don’t remember if she bought a popsicle that day. I stare at the photo, willing her forward. I want to see her hold a popsicle, her mouth stained some grisly purple, happy again.

    As it is, her pause, this uncertainty is almost impossible to bear. I wonder, as I used to spend days wondering, if at such moments she felt something. Was there some intimation in the coldness of the water, the smell of chlorine, the brightness of the day?

    There was a popsicle vendor there the day she didn’t get out of the water. He said in the paper that he didn’t want to go back to selling popsicles at the pool, that every child made him feel like crying, but what else could he do? It was a tragedy, he said. How many popsicles did she eat after this photo was taken? How many mosquito bites did she get? Why didn’t somebody think to count such things?

  15. Patricia A. Hawkenson

    Photo Synthesis

    Its glimmer sparkled at me
    when I picked up the photo
    showing me those years ago.

    I had forgotten about that belt
    a vacation gift from my boyfriend then
    who later became my husband.

    Ten years have settled themselves
    into the space where I used to wear
    that silvered buckled belt.

    So I went to dig into my closet
    and found it carefully packed
    behind a jumbled pile of shoes.

    I was just trying it on for size
    when he found me, picture in hand.
    "Who’s the girl in this picture?" he asked.

    "It was me. I’m afraid it isn’t any more."
    Aghast, my tears fell instantly
    along with the belt to the floor.

    "But I don’t love that girl," he said
    as his arms wrapped around my waist
    and that was worth a thousand words.

    He dropped the picture as he kissed me
    and I, overcome with dismay,
    gasped for air, and him.