“The Polaroid” by Renee Roberson is the First Prize-winning story in the Young Adult category in the 13th Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. For complete coverage of the awards, see the May/June 2018 issue of Writer's Digest. To see a complete list of winners and read the first-place winners in each genre, click here. For an extended interview with our grand-prize winner, click here. For a selection of advice and inspiration from the winners, click here.
The Polaroid by Renee Roberson
Emmy vividly remembered the day Harrison took the Polaroid. Her hands were bound behind her back and there was a red bandana tied around her mouth. She had been curled up on the worn, flowered sofa in the basement that reeked of mildew. Tears stung her eyes and dripped through her lashes when she blinked, although she tried not to let Harrison see it, even through the blinding flash of the camera.
It was the ragged breathing of the boy sitting on the other side of the sofa and hiccups through his own bandana that caused her to cry. His fear was so real, so visceral, that it permeated throughout her body. The wound that once ached, then festered, and then contracted until it was only a hard knot inside of her chest.
“What do you think about that?” Harrison danced in front of them gleefully, holding the camera with its ironically cheerful rainbow stripe on the front in one hand and waving the first photo through the air as it developed. “Why have one when two is twice the fun?”
Now, watching the local evening news on the small TV set up on the dilapidated kitchen table in the corner of the basement, she couldn’t believe her eyes. The camera panned in on a close-up of that very picture. The anchor’s voice could be heard over the sight of the photo, her tone reflective and somber.
“A local woman contacted police this morning after coming across this photograph in the parking lot of the Save Rite,” she said. “It is her belief that the girl in the photograph is Emmy Farn, who disappeared five years ago while riding her bike to her part-time job. Since her disappearance, there have been numerous unconfirmed sightings of Emmy here in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee. We’ve asked the police department for a statement regarding the photo, but as of right now, they are looking into the matter and have no comment.”
The screen flashed to footage in front of the Save Rite, where a thin, grey-haired woman with concerned blue eyes framed by red glasses was speaking into a microphone.
“I remember plain as day when Emmy Farn went missing,” she said. “I had a granddaughter that age so it was frightening to our community. They found her bike all banged up and assumed she had an accident and someone grabbed her. I recognized her right away when I saw that picture just lying on the ground.” She wrung her hands nervously.
“But how can you really be sure this is her?” the reporter, a young man with black hair slicked back on his head, pressed her. “Her mouth is bound. You can only see part of her face. There are no other distinguishable—”
“Look at her face,” the woman interrupted him. “It’s in her eyes. I saw those eyes staring at me from flyers all over town when she went missing, and they are the same ones in this picture. Her hands are tied. She looks petrified.”
Emmy remembered how long it had taken the first image to develop, watching the milky haze as it slowly spread across the square-shaped piece of photo paper. Harrison held it in front of her face while she tried to breathe through the cloth bandana. First her legs became visible in the photo, tucked under her with the jagged “z” scar on her knee from falling off a skateboard she had always hated. Then the itchy grey t-shirt stained and smelling faintly of oil. Last, you could see her face, with the eyes widened and shining with tears, her brown hair hanging loosely around her face.
Funny, she thought now, listening to the woman on the TV yammer on and on. It had taken her about thirty minutes to fully appear on the photo, but it had taken her much longer to disappear from the self she had always known down in that basement. She had lost track of the days after two years.
“But I don’t think that’s even the most important question here,” the woman was saying on the news report. “The question we should be asking is, who is the boy with her? Where has she been all this time, and who is that boy? Have any little boys his age been reported missing?”
Emmy heard the flush of the toilet in the small bathroom in the corner and then his voice, which had changed in recent months along with the angles of his face and limbs and the inches on his frame.
“What are you watching?”
“Nothing,” she said, pressing the off button on the TV and turning to face him. “I heard him leave this morning, but he didn’t bring us anything to eat.”
His face darkened. “What else is new?”
He stomped over to the cot set up in one corner of the basement and flung himself across it. She could hear his stomach growling from across the room and it broke her heart. Soon, hers joined in.
She waited until his breathing was even and he began snoring lightly before she tiptoed back over to the TV and turned it back on. She turned the volume down low and manually turned the knob, trying to find more mentions of the Polaroid on other news stations. She hit pay dirt on Channel 5. A man who identified himself as an FBI agent was holding up a copy of the picture and pointing to the boy.
“We are 99 percent certain that this boy is Devan Boyles of Clearwater, Florida, who went missing two years ago at the age of 10.” The man yanked at the tie around his neck as if it was choking him. “If it is correct that the other person in this photo is Emmy Farn, and her parents do believe it is, the two were abducted by the same person. We are trying to determine how old this Polaroid is, as it appears to be a few years old, and working to see what else we can find out from it. That’s all we have for now. Thank you.” He turned and walked out of range of the camera, leaving behind a cacophony of shouts from the other reporters in the room, who clearly had more questions.
The investigators knew who they were. They knew they might still be alive. But how much could they possibly figure out from a picture? Emmy tried to squelch the hope rising in the back of her throat. She jumped when his cold fingers clamped down on her shoulder.
“Devan! Damnit, you know you can’t do that to me!” she yelled, and then backed away when she saw the look on his face. Then she realized the TV was still on. “Wait, how much did you hear?”
He stared down at the floor, tears shimmering in his eyes. “Enough,” he said. Before she could say anything else, they heard the key rattling in the lock at the top of the basement the stairs.
Harrison was home.
They heard his footsteps on the stairs first and then saw his hands appear, which were carrying a cardboard drink holder. He plopped two milkshakes down on the kitchen table—strawberry for Emmy, chocolate for Devan—all while watching the breaking news report that will still playing on Channel 5. Emmy froze as her mother, standing on the porch of their house, flashed across the screen, a group of microphones visible in front of her face. As she let out a whimper and clasped one hand over her mouth, Harrison glanced over his shoulder, and with an eerie calm, he walked over to the TV and unplugged it. Devan and Emmy stood frozen on the concrete floor, waiting to gauge his mood.
Mom. A dozen images flashed through Emmy’s mind. How she always told Emmy not to listen to her music while riding her bike, how she should not be so naïve and always pay attention to her surroundings. How angry she would get when Emmy was mean to her younger brother, Theo. How scared she’d been after that skateboarding accident, when they were in the emergency room waiting for Emmy to get stitches.
“Go ahead, drink,” Harrison said, gesturing towards the shakes and bringing her back to the present. “You’ve been whining about being hungry, so what are you waiting for?”
Emmy picked up her shake with a trembling hand while Harrison laughed. Devan had already slurped most of his down. Harrison readjusted his dirty baseball cap and crossed his arms in front of him.
“So who gets the honor of entertaining me upstairs tonight?” The shake threatened to make its way back up Emmy’s esophagus, although she should have predicted it. He only brought them treats on the nights he expected “entertainment.”
Devan stared down at the floor. The sight of the Polaroid flashed in front of Emmy’s eyes again, as she remembered the small boy with the curls and how frightened he’d been when that photo was taken.
She stepped forward. “Me.”
Harrison grabbed her roughly by the arm and began to push her towards the stairs.
“Wait!” Devan cried. He rushed forward and threw his arms her, squeezing her tight. Her forehead furrowed—he was usually so relieved when she volunteered that he tried to make himself invisible as they left. She couldn’t figure out what he was doing.
“Okay, that’s enough!” Harrison yelled, pulling Devan off her. He clenched her forearm so tight she gasped in pain as they made their way up the stairs, to the bedroom in the main part of the house where she only got to go when the mood struck Harrison.
He shut the bedroom door behind him and went into the adjacent bathroom, leaving the door open. She sat on the edge of the bed, a thin veil of sweat forming on her skin, and felt a lump in the back pocket of her worn and faded jeans.
A lighter. She was puzzled, then realized that Devan must have slipped it into her pocket. And where had he gotten it in the first place … unless he swiped it one night when Harrison was in the basement, going off on one of his drunken rants that usually included the lit cigarette that was sometimes pressed against various parts of their skin? Devan, who had always played the subservient role, who had tried to not to make waves with Harrison, was begging her to take action, to finally set them free.
But could she do it? How could she set the room ablaze without Harrison noticing? She held the lighter behind her back in a trembling hand, scooting herself backwards across the bed, closer to the wall. When Harrison went to flush the toilet, she acted. She flicked the lighter and held it close to the sheet hanging off the side of the bed, feeling the heat as the flame caught the material. She stood up and began unbuttoning her shirt as a distraction while Harrison exited the bathroom, a sleazy smile spreading across his stubble-covered face.
As he leaned over her, she reached for the damned Polaroid camera on the nightstand, the one he had blinded her with so many times before in this very bedroom. With her heart in her throat, Emmy swung the camera by its black strap as hard as she could across the front of his face, watching as blood gushed from the open wound there. He screamed in pain as she brought the camera around and smacked him as hard as she could on the back the head, losing herself in the moment before she realized how many times she had hit him.
He fell across the bed, which was now engulfed in flames. Though smoke had begun to fill the air, she stopped long enough to snap a Polaroid of her own, taking it with her as she ran from the room.
In the kitchen, she saw the ring of keys on the counter next to the stove. Shaking, and with a surge of adrenaline coursing through her veins, she fumbled with the keys until she found the one that unlocked the door to the basement. Devan was waiting right on the other side and burst into the kitchen. He stood in the doorway of the bedroom for a split second, watching as the flames filled the room, licking the unmoving figure on the bed.
“Come on!” she screamed, dropping the key ring and then picking it up again as she unlocked the door leading out of the house. It swung open and she grabbed Devan’s hand, dragging him outside in the cool night air, air she hadn’t felt in so many years. They paused in the yard, looking around at what looked like nothingness, no neighboring houses around, until they saw a dirt road. It was pale, white, and seemed to stretch on forever. Emmy wanted to cry as the cold air hit them, her breath coming out in small puffs. They couldn’t go back in the house to try and call for help—what if he wasn’t dead? And the crackling blaze had already overtaken the main floor of the house.
She turned back towards Devan and took his hands in hers. Tears streamed down his face.
“Where do we go from here?” he asked.
Together, they turned back toward the stretch of road, crunching the pebbles beneath their feet with a sound that in the future she would always, always associate with freedom. Taking his hand, she started to run, and he ran with her.
“Wherever we want to go, baby. Wherever we want to go.”