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 117."
No attachments, please. Include your name and mailing address. Entries without a name or mailing address with be disqualified.
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Entry Deadline: CLOSED
Out of over 100 entries, WD editors chose the following 5 finalists. Vote for your favorite entry using the poll at the bottom of the page.
Jonathan was fine with losing the house. He was completely fine with losing his marriage. But not Maya. She was the only reason Jonathan even tried to make it work with Tamara for two years too long. Hunched over the dining table with his face buried in his hands, Jonathan stole a glance at his daughter playing on the kitchen floor with her dolls.
Clay sat next to him, doing a poor job of keeping him calm and an even worse job at helping him win his custody battle. “She’s allowing you weekends.”
Jonathan looked around his apartment filled with garage sale furniture he moved in himself since Tamara took their friends too. His eyes settled on the fridge where alphabet magnets held up late bills and a photo of Jonathan embracing Maya who wore a pink sweater and a soft smile. “Full custody. I won’t settle for anything less.”
“Then we got work to do.” Clay pulled his phone from his pocket. “We’ll need some reinforcements.” He made a call and within minutes there was a knock on the door. Clay rose and answered it as Jonathan and his daughter peered around the corner at the mystery guest.
A young woman with long hair and a not long enough t-shirt walked in, a backpack slung over one shoulder. Jonathan didn’t understand what she had to do with his custody battle.
“This is Taylor from Instalife. She’s helped a lot of my clients win cases.” Clay extended a hand. “Thanks for coming on such short notice.”
“Yeah, sure,” Taylor said without looking up from her phone. “So, what are we pretending?”
“He’s looking for full custody of his daughter. Let's go with Happy Single Dad.”
“I am a happy, single Dad.” Jonathan looked over at Maya, hoping for some sort of confirmation, but she was hyper-focused on the girl pulling out a tripod and a ring light from her backpack.
Clay gave Jonathan’s shoulder a squeeze. “I know that. You know that. But the world doesn’t know that. Taylor sets up social media accounts for people trying to win lawsuits and legal battles by showing they are injured, sober, or whatever else they need to be to convince a judge.”
Cupboard doors slammed from the kitchen, disrupting the jumble of questions Jonathan wanted to ask. He followed the noise and saw Taylor arranging items on the counter. “Okay, Single Dad, let's get some pictures of you and your daughter making cookies.”
With a squeal, Maya ran into the kitchen and dragged a dining chair to the counter.
“But I’ve never baked anything before.”
“You just have to pretend you’re making cookies and having fun.” Taylor staged Jonathan and Maya to make it look like they were stirring bowls of dough, complete with smearing flour on their faces and hands. She circled them with her phone held out in front of her and captured the imaginary baking event. Jonathan held his tongue while orders to act happy were barked at him. He said he would do anything to have full custody of Maya and he was ready to prove it.
The next hour passed by in a whirl as Taylor depicted various domestic scenes for the pair to pose in, all proving Jonathan was capable and doting. Finally, with the apartment in disarray from multiple set changes, Taylor announced they had enough evidence. She packed up her equipment and requested payment be Venmoed by the end of the day. Clay gave a thumbs up and she left the apartment.
“Full custody is as good as yours,” Clay said before heading out and Jonathan, after looking at his new social media accounts, felt his confidence grow.
Late that night, he took down the old photo on the fridge and replaced it with one of Taylor’s. He and Maya looked much happier in those.
They are protective. They are obsequious. They are strong. They are caring. Moriah skimmed through the rest of the glossy brochure. She leaned back in her kitchen chair and pushed the brochure away. Most importantly, she thought, they never suffer illnesses.
She had started with the base model, then wrestled through an endless list of customizations. She wanted him bald, but with a full beard, neatly trimmed. He had to have white teeth, so white that people would question whether his teeth were real. And he had to be masculine. She spent more than three hours online answering the endless questions that would develop his personality. She specified his likes and dislikes, his habits, his affections. She expected him to be perfect, not because she spent nearly all her savings on him, but because he needed to be perfect for Jasmine.
For months, Jasmine had begged Moriah to purchase one. All the other kids had them, Jasmine had explained. Of course, that wasn’t true. Most families didn’t need one. Some families found them creepy. Few families could afford one. Moriah couldn’t afford one, but she managed the expense for Jasmine’s sake.
It wouldn’t be the same as the real thing, but the company said he would be close. The company also said they could deliver on Saturdays, which was fantastic since Jasmine would be home from school. Moriah checked her watch. She twisted a long strand of hair into a curly lock. The truck should arrive in the next half hour. She went to the window and pulled back the curtains.
Jasmine was perched on the front porch steps with her pink coat buttoned to her chin and her arms wrapped around her knees. Moriah went outside and sat next to her.
“Do you remember the name we chose?” Moriah asked.
“I’ll just call him dad.” She dipped her head, and her pigtails bounced against her cheeks. “What will he be like, Mommy?”
Moriah put her arm around her daughter’s shoulders and pulled her close. She pointed toward the street. “It looks like we’re about to find out.”
Jasmine raised her head as the matte black delivery truck slowed to a stop at the curb. American Robotics emblazoned the side of the truck with stenciled white letters. She jumped to her feet and ran to the sidewalk. Moriah followed.
The driver got out and opened the roll-up door. Sunlight streamed into the cargo area. Several men stood in the light with their eyes closed as if sleeping. One man’s eyes were open. He was tall, bald, bearded, and wore a gray button-down shirt with black trousers. He lowered himself out of the back of the truck and assessed his surroundings. Jasmine launched herself into his arms.
He smiled and hugged her tightly to his chest. “You must be Jasmine.”
She smiled. “You must be Dad.”
It’s Marvin’s favorite photo of his daughter. Taken on an April afternoon twenty years ago by Mrs. Shubert, who lived across the street. Amelia was seven. She loved magenta. It made her feel like a superhero, she said. Her new heart had been received a year earlier. After the transplant, she ran like all the other kids on the block, challenged them to race her to the end of the street. Marvin knew some of the kids slowed down on purpose. It touched him, seeing the close-knit neighborhood stare in awe at his little girl, who before could only sit on the porch and watch other kids play.
A breeze outside the window disturbs an old branch on the ash tree. He puts the frame back on the table and steps to the window. Warmth whispers through the screen. The kids who grew up with Amelia have moved. Some to different neighborhoods, others to different cities.
Amelia is gone, too.
His eyes cloud over. He’d already started missing her years ago. After she’d become like any other girl and no longer jumped up into his arms. By thirteen she was calling boys. At sixteen, driving the car. The first night she took it out by herself he stood at the door, warning her not to speed or look away from the road.
She’d flipped her hair back from her shoulder. “Oh, because you never do those things?”
“Well, I want you to be a better driver than I am.” He chuckled. She rolled her eyes, but he caught a glimpse of a smile.
He watched her back out of the driveway, cringing when she got too close to the grass and again when she ran over the curb. She still needed practice with reverse. Once the car was in the street and she drove away, she looked like an expert. She’s not my little girl anymore. Silly of him to be sad. Parents wanted their children to become independent. For Amelia, living a normal life was a gift. They’d almost lost her.
Joanne had scolded him for being overprotective. If he kept hovering, she warned, he’d push Amelia away. Joanne was jealous of the bond he shared with their daughter. During her illness he was the comforter, reading her books and telling jokes. Joanne made sure Amelia ate and swallowed her pills, took her to all her appointments.
Marvin hears Joanne’s heels clicking on the hallway floor. He turns from the window. She appears in a silver pantsuit. She’s straightened her hair. When had it become so long?
“How do I look?”
He sees from her expectant eyes that this time it really matters.
She smiles and steps up to him, straightening the magenta sash around his shoulders. It’s redder than the shirt Amelia wears in the photo, but it’s close. He can’t believe they’re saying goodbye to their only child.
Joanne’s eyes brim as she steps back to examine him. “You’re handsome in a suit.” She kisses him. “Let’s go.”
He lingers after she leaves, looking at the photo again. He’ll carry that moment in his heart forever. Doctors never promised Amelia would have a long life. She accepted it. They all did.
Which makes celebrating her new job as a pediatric cardiologist even more special. He wishes she wasn’t moving so far away. But it’s warmer out west, she won’t have to trek through snow in the winter. He hopes she loves it.
“Marvin?” Joanne’s tone is a light mix of impatience and curiosity.
“Coming,” he calls and shuts the living room window.
The Answering Machine
The woman flat out said she screwed Dad. Her words were brushed with a theatrical expression. I imagined her seductively practicing it in a mirror while she was on her knees in bed, draped in a violescent silky see-through robe. I pictured short hair—a sexy unconventional style that made her daring and desirable. She was the type of woman who put on makeup before bed. She wasn’t as naturally attractive as Mom.
Mom parked in a driveway that wasn’t far from Dad. We watched like we were at a drive-in movie. Between his car and a dark cherry Chevy Beretta with Washington license plates was an empty space on the driveway. It was the center of their meeting.
The woman’s thin jacket flapped open. The wind caught her hair and made it look like it was rising up in flames. It was the exact same color as Dad’s hair. A girl leaped out of the back seat of the Beretta and reached Dad first. She threw her short arms around his neck. Her eyes were pinched shut. Her mouth closed into a true smile. The lights in her LA Gears brought a gut feeling of resentment. I wondered if he bought them for her. They twirled their fingers into each other. She said a couple of words. I imagined her saying: “Daddy, daddy.” He smiled at her. It was a blow that made me want to throw up.
The woman pecked Dad on the lips. She cupped his face. I was almost positive she was not the answering machine woman. There would’ve been an initial exchange of anger. She had a distinction of innocence. She believed she was the only woman in his life. I didn’t think a woman with a daughter would leave the words, “I screwed your husband,” on an answering machine.
The sun flooded them with an angelic illumination. They were into each other. They had shown up for each other. They looked good together. I hated admitting it. I wanted that someday. For a minute, I forgot the fact that it was Dad and some woman who screwed him. They looked like a family. It was not the feeling I had when the three of us were together. Dysfunction foamed from our group presence. We were not affectionate. We ate dinner in silence. We were forced. We were not destined to be together forever.
The Princess Museum
I am not your father. You are not my daughter. You are what still ties me to my older sister, lost to her wanderlust back in 2010. When she left you with me that spring morning, said she was just going out for an interview and a smoke, I didn’t blame her. She kept on crying when she carried you, kept on crying when gave birth to you alone in the public hospital, and carried her sadness with a smile when she took care of you. It has been too much for her when she took care of me as a teenager when my father got arrested, when my mother disappeared. I don’t blame her.
“Where are we going today?” you asked. You didn’t want to wake up, but I had to wake you up.
“The street fair. Didn’t you say you wanted to look at the paintings?”
I brushed your hair. Tied it into a double ponytail. Like you were when my sister left you.
The sun lit the crowded street fair with glee. I bought you your favorite ice cream: vanilla with rainbow sprinkles. Table after table of sweets and trinkets: wooden keychains, plastic bracelets, potted cacti, homemade stationery, and pastries. I had to drag you away from wanting each and every display so that we can go to what I’ve been saving for this month.
It was the booth of a local painter’s guild. The one your mother used to be part of back in college. She was fond of bringing you to exhibitions like these.
We’ve learned not to mention her while you’re here.
“Go buy a painting for your room.”
And out of all the colorful artworks on display, you chose the portrait of a black princess in a blue dress, arms and chest tattooed, a crown atop her cornrows.
“One day, I’ll be a famous painter. I’ll host a great exhibit. All my teachers and classmates will be there. Maybe Momma will be there too,” you told me, as we rode away from the fair.
I’ve learned not to nudge you away from what your mother wanted.
We dropped by the grocery store. I bought you oil pastels and a drawing book. I wasn’t prepared for the mess watercolors and paint will bring. But we’ll get there.
I bought cereal, apples, bananas. Vodka.
When we got home, I carried you on my back. Your dragon to your lair, your pastels: your sword, your drawing book: your shield. I returned back to the car to get the painting and the groceries and entered our home to find you settling into your kingdom, which was once my living room.
Sis, is this your way of making me feel how you suffered when we were young? That you didn’t get to choose to take care of me?
I carried you as you hung the painting in your room. “Today, we launch the princess museum. Yey! We will decorate your room with your best artwork! And you’ll have your own exhibit when Momma arrives.”
“What if she forgot me already? What if she doesn’t come back?”
“She has not forgotten you. Momma loves you, remember? And she promised. Now go practice your drawing.”
Three shots of vodka to kick me to a nap. I wake up to you sleeping on the floor, oil pastels scattered around you. In my fingers, you stuck a page.
In it you drew me, carrying you on a sunny day.
Thank you, Uncle, you wrote.
I clipped it to the fridge door, above your many other doodles.
I will not let you suffer what my sister has been through. I promise.