Prompt: Write a short story of 650 words or fewer based on the photo prompt above. You can be poignant, funny, witty, etc.; it is, after all, your story.
Email your submission to email@example.com with the subject line "Your Story 115."
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Entry Deadline: CLOSED
Out of over 200 entries, WD editors chose the following 5 finalists. Vote for your favorite entry using the poll at the bottom of the page.
The Hamster Wheel
She’d paid for mountains, for picturesque. She’d paid for fresh air! Of course, she also thought she’d paid for a professional. Not that it mattered now.
“I’m sorry,” she said again, the tall, slender woman piloting the balloon. “I guess I…” she shook her head and looked over the edge of the basket.
“It’s fine. Away is away, I suppose. Can we open this?” Marlene pulled the wine from the picnic basket and said nothing about the fact that she could see her office from here.
“Of course, it’s yours. You paid for it and…” the woman trailed off, winced a little as the pink rose on her cheeks, and fished the corkscrew from her pocket.
Marlene turned and stared at her office building as they slowly floated along. She told herself not to, but still, she lifted the binoculars and found Allan’s office. He was at his desk, back to the window, phone to his ear. She’d reminded him at dinner last night and even called this morning to remind him again, but he was on the other line. Her call went straight to voicemail.
“Here you are, ma’am.”
Marlene took the wine glass. “Thank you. I’m sorry, I’m a bit distracted, what was your name again?”
“I’m Marlene. Will you join me, Sylvie?” She indicated the glass in her hand.
“Thank you, but I can’t and pilot the balloon.”
Marlene nodded. “If I may ask, what made you decide to pilot hot air balloons?”
“No, it’s none of my business. I just thought while we’re up here…” she trailed off.
“My ex and I went to Albuquerque for the balloon festival and a sort of second honeymoon to reconnect and get our marriage back on track. The balloons were amazing, but the other bit didn’t really work out. Chrissy, the new misses, had other plans.”
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have pried.”
Sylvie smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “There’s chocolate too.”
“Chocolate is always a good idea.”
Sylvie pulled an arrangement of chocolate sticks from the picnic basket. “I think the strawberry is best with wine, but that’s just me.”
“Sounds great. Will you have some too, please?”
“Thank you,” said Sylvie, as she took a strawberry one for herself. “The thing is, I loved being up in that balloon, floating above the world. I didn’t want that to be one more thing he got in the divorce. So, here I am. This is just a second job, to make the mortgage, but for me, it’s kind of like winning in the end. Even today. Again, I’m so sorry.”
“It’s fine. Romantic views probably aren’t the best for my mood now anyway.”
“So, if I may ask, why are you up here alone with me and wine?”
Marlene slipped the binoculars off and passed them to Sylvie. “There,” she said, pointing, “one floor down, right corner office.”
“I see a man at a desk on the phone.”
“That phone is my other woman. We’ve been dating for two years, but I can’t seem to compete with the hustle, with one more sale.”
Sylvie topped off Marlene’s glass. “I’m sorry.”
“A friend even suggested he might propose today, but I guess I knew better. We’ve been going in circles. He’ll promise to change, to reprioritize, but it lasts a month, two tops. Then, we’re back on the ‘just an hour late, it’s an important deal’ path again. Marlene looked down at the traffic and the roundabout she knew all too well. When she’d first moved here, merging on and off had terrified her. “It’s like I’m stuck on a hamster wheel, round and round, and now it’s comfortable, just part of the routine.”
Sylvie followed Marlene’s eyes down to the traffic circle. “I never noticed that the freeway makes an X over it.”
“Me either. Maybe it’s a sign.”
Sylvie nodded. “Maybe it is.”
Your mom screams like the world is ending the moment you pull out of the DMV.
“Stop it!” you shout back. “If anyone’s getting us into an accident, it’ll be your fault with all that screeching!”
“Brakes! Brakes!” She stomps on the floor of the passenger side of the car as if she’s able to stop the vehicle on her own.
You ease onto the brakes, stopping in front of the next car with plenty of space. “You act like I’m going to intentionally swerve us into oncoming traffic. You realize I just turned sixteen, not five.”
And then she’s off again, prattling on about your tone, and I am your mother, and I’m allowed to worry, and I will say this and that and if you justthenyoucouldtrytobethisandthatandandand
It takes nearly five minutes for her to realize you aren’t listening. Ironically, that launches her into another eruption of words tumbling out at far over the verbal speed limit. Fifty miles an hour on your car cannot even compare.
You absently tap the switch on the steering wheel to change the radio station. The pop singers’ warbly voices clash awfully with your mother’s rambling. Her voice sounds too far up her nose. How did she even get this worked up?
There’s probably an award you can receive for this, or at least some type of scholarship. Sixteen-year-old tolerates the world’s most pointless case of lecturing, the headlines will say. You will be regarded as an icon for putting up with this the day you got your learner’s permit.
A car behind you lays on the horn, and you curse back, and, oh, now you’ve done it. Appalled cannot even begin to describe the expression on your mother’s face, and you know you’re going to be grounded for at least a month, give or take a few thousand.
You knew you shouldn’t have stuck the Novice Driver sticker to your bumper. You’re practically a glowing target now, basically screaming to the world, Cut me off! Honk at me! Make my commute a living hell! You tried to explain this to your mother on the way out, but she would hear none of it.
Your younger brother sits behind you, kicking the seat. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. You bite back a comment, hyper-focusing on the road and nothing else.
It’s thrilling, pulling onto the highway for the first time. It’s an organized chaos, how the cars weave in between one another, cutting off and pulling forward. Your heart thuds along with your brother’s kicking. Yes, you might crash, but you might also make it home safely. Although, if you consider it, that’s true for every driver on every drive.
Your driving instructor never took you on the highway before, but your mom doesn’t need to know that. She has gone quiet now, death-gripping the grab handle above the passenger door.
“I passed the class, you know,” you remind her.
She makes a noncommittal noise of agreement.
You’ve learned all about crash statistics and insurance premiums. The last thing you want to do is get into an accident, and you’re pretty sure your mother already knows that, too.
After a few more perilous minutes on the road, you arrive home, awkwardly parking the car in the driveway. Your mother climbs out of the car, going off again on your “crazy” driving and how she cannot believe she decided to let you drive back.
Your little brother tugs on your shirt when you lock the car. “You know, I wasn’t screaming like Mommy was,” he says, shrugging, “but I thought you were gonna crash it, too.”
You gape at him as he races away toward the front door.
Well, maybe that dramatic escapade will help you appreciate the little things that seemed like problems before. You pull your new license out of your wallet to see your photo and—Nope. It’s still hideous.
Around about nine in the evening, I entered the roundabout in the west end of the city.
As new arrivals used the onramps to enter the roundabout and offramps to leave, I drove steadily onward, staying on the far inside of the large circle.
Darkness had fallen and in the steady flow of traffic, my little grey Honda civic should go undetected. I could see little of the other drivers. At least no interested faces turned my way.
In the back seat, Joey was sleeping soundly, obviously unaware of the vehicles sweeping past.
If Emily had not done what she did, I would never have done what I did.
Did she know yet that Joey was missing? Would she suspect me? Of course. Isn’t the former husband always the first and foremost suspect? Luckily for me, she had no idea where I lived, only where I worked. She could contact them or the police, but they had no idea where I lived either. On the other hand, an APB might alert innocent people to be on the alert for me.
My throat felt dry. Eyes on my circular route, I reached for the water bottle sitting in the cup holder and drank deeply. I longed to steal a look in the back but knew that Joey, securely strapped in, was too low for me to see unless I stopped and looked, but roundabouts lack parking areas.
The Saturday I found out Emily was cheating on me, I had moved out, leaving her and Joey. The next Saturday, Hank had moved in with her and Joey.
For the past ten months, my mind had never been still. I cursed Emily for betraying me and our marriage vows and killing my love for her. I cursed Hank for being Emily’s new love, for taking my place, for pretending to be her husband.
I had suffered humiliation, frustration, and failure. I needed revenge. The direct route to that would be to kill Emily outright, but I would be suspected, caught, and punished, perhaps put to death. No, I had to find a roundabout way to satisfy myself and make her suffer as I had. Without her, Hank’s newfound, wonderful life would be destroyed.
The next time I saw Joey, I had my answer.
Emily adored him as much as I did, probably more so because she spent more time with him. I worked long hours. She thought the sun rose and fell on Joey. If I could separate the pair, revenge would be mine.
I cruised by the house many times and often saw one or both adults outside, usually with Joey. Driving by in the alley behind the house gave me more satisfaction. Joey was sometimes alone in the backyard. I could sit out of sight of the doors and windows and watch him.
Today I had stopped. No sign of Emily or Hank.
Joey came running when I called. I merely lifted him over the fence and into my car. I buckled him into the backseat and headed to the largest roundabout in the city. Joey was asleep before I got there.
I was safe here. I could drive around and around until one of three things happened: I left the roundabout–not likely or at least not yet; someone saw me and reported me–I hope not; or my car ran out of gas. The fuel gauge showed mid-way between full and empty. Good thing my circular driving made large circles, or I might have become dizzy and caused an accident.
I had to plan my next move. How could I return to my apartment with Joey without having someone finding out?
It was bad enough that Emily had changed partners.
Wait till she found out I had stolen her precious baby boy, her prize-winning Best Pomeranian in the Waterford Dog Show—Prince Joseph of Raleigh—better known as Joey.
I sit comfortably in my granddaughter's minivan as we inch along the elevated superhighway that spreads over the land where my grandfather's farm once stood. Looking East to where the mountains meet the sky, I am glad to see that at least the view has not changed. Daydreaming, I find myself back on Grandpa’s rocking chair on the wraparound porch, admiring the hills and blue sky, listening to the bird’s chirp and the whispers of the wind as it blows through the hair I no longer have. The scent of the lilacs surrounding the porch is strong, but I can also still smell the bacon my family just devoured from Grandma’s breakfast.
The hanging plants around me are still dripping from the morning watering as the rising sun warms my body. When I see Mary biking up the dirt road to the house, I leap off the porch, over the wooden front steps, onto the grass and mount my bike, I rush down the driveway to meet her at our usual spot near the mailbox, next to the rosebush, which is in full bloom, the flowers still open wide after quenching their thirst on the morning dew.
We ride for hours, racing each other here and there, Mary keeping pace with me the whole way, sometimes beating me. Taking a break, we leave our bikes and walk along the railroad tracks near the river. The sun is high, bees fly from flower to flower, grasshoppers jump about, one even makes it across both rails right in front of us, making us laugh. She is so beautiful when she laughs. When we see a copse of trees partly covered by what looks like cobwebs, we investigate and find thousands of caterpillars within the webs, feeding on the leaves. In awe, we look into each other’s eyes, smiling. Time freezes. There is a warmth in my chest that I have never felt before. Confused about what is happening, I look away.
Back on the tracks, heading to our bikes, I want to look into Mary’s eyes again and feel what I just felt, but I do not know what to do. Walking on one of the rails, next to Mary, I lose my balance and fall towards her. When I land, we are face to face. She smells of strawberry, like the color of her hair. Our eyes meet again, her pupils dilate. When she leans in and kisses me, an electric shock runs through my entire body.
The horn from the truck behind us brings me back into the minivan. I think of the letter we still have, the one the state sent invoking “eminent domain” when they forced my grandparents to sell their home, so they could build the highway. The letter said it was “necessary to facilitate progress, to allow people to better connect to one another.” I cannot suppress a sarcastic laugh as I remember how my family walked down those front steps for the last time, turned and waved goodbye to the house, the porch, the flowers, our arms around each other.
As my granddaughter drives us across the “X,” the center of the obnoxious highway below us, she turns down the radio and yells out to her husband, who sits beside her and our 3 beautiful grandchildren in the third row behind us; “here we are, where grandma and grandpa met!”
I turn to my left as Mary turns toward me, smiling. When I lean in to kiss her, the voltage on the electricity that runs through me is not as strong as it was those so many years ago, but it is still there.
DREAMS OF ANYWHERE
Kiara pressed her forehead against the cold glass, daring the raindrops outside to leak through the window and run down her cheeks. They laughed, staying on the far side of the icy glass, but her face was still wet.
She wasn’t sure that was the right word for it.
Black pavement sped by, a blur in her imagination only interrupted by mile markers and white lines. A yellow taxi, much like the one she was in, passed around the circle on the level below her and a red car sent a splash of gray water spilling down from the overpass above her. With a deep sigh, Kiara turned away from the window to look at the worn backpack sitting at her feet. Three outfits, six books, and three quarters of a sandwich. She’d replace the bag soon. The clothes would end up in a closet, books on a shelf, and the sandwich… she’d buy some fancy coffee at the airport.
Pretending to turn back to the window, she snuck a glance at her driver.
He caught her looking and winked in the rearview mirror, blue eyes sparkling. She tried not to smile; he was just taking her to the airport. And from there she would fly…
Did it matter?
Thunder rolled in the distance.
“BEEEDOOOOO! BEEEEDOOOO! WHOO WHOO WHOO!”
Shaking the fabric of imagined reality, a massive hand reached out of the sky, sending taxis, cars, and buses flying across the lanes and medians alike. Another hand dropped a massive robot into the center of the chaos, followed by a man with a red cape.
Kiara jumped, startled, which shook the daydream away, and returned her gaze to the pile of textbooks on the table in front of her. Gone were the taxis, raindrops, and plane tickets. She sighed.
With more sound effects, and probably more than a little spit, a young boy smashed toy cars with the plastic feet of a robot. With each hit, they flew farther and farther from the roads painted on the fabric mat. She stared at him blankly for a moment before smiling and shaking her head.
Always getting in the way.
She needed to do her science homework anyway. Kiara picked up the pencil she had let fall to the floor and kicked a few yellow taxis back in her brother’s direction.
They were promptly smashed.
Turning to her textbook, she read an entire sentence before her eyes glazed over. Condensation… Boiling points…
Her brother paused the sound effects to catch his breath, and Kiara could hear the shouts coming from upstairs. Two voices, back and forth, often at once, as constant as the hum of the air conditioning. They acted like she didn’t know. Did they think she was deaf?
A door slammed and glass shattered against the floor above her head. Staring up at the ceiling, she wondered what had broken and who would end up cleaning up the mess. If only they would start crying, then laugh as they picked up the pieces of glass together. “If onlys” only helped as much as daydreams of plane tickets and chivalrous taxi drivers.
The pencil slipped out of her hand and rolled off the edge of the table.
Someday she would fly…
It didn’t matter.