- 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 #103.” Include your name, phone number, and mailing address. No attachments, please. Paste your submission directly into the body of the email.
Unfortunately, we cannot respond to every entry we receive, due to volume. No confirmation emails will be sent out to confirm receipt of submission. But be assured all submissions received before entry deadline are considered carefully. Official Rules
Entry Deadline: CLOSED
Out of 120 entries, Writer's Digest editors chose the follow 5 finalists.
The Your Story #103 winner will be published in the July/August 2020 issue of Writer's Digest.
Light lays a thousand miles below our feet.
As the elevator dived into the abyss, the thrum of a hundred rapid heartbeats matched my own, teased with the torment of tension. The air succumbed to stale exhales the moment a monotone message marked the halt of our descent.
Exit on the left.
The iron doors slid open and exposed a harsh stranger, straining my feeble eyes. The tiles against the walls swelled maliciously of artificial flames, prompting my longing for comforting shadows.
Still squinting against the brightness, hasty hands pulled me from night’s bitter breath.
I grew up under collapsed sunlight. Awakening to shade and sleeping under shadows, the sun is a stranger to my skin. When water froze on my fifth birthday, the earth was finally destined for death. Then salvation emerged.
Buried deep underground, they provided a faint light, their protected procedures unknown to the public. It allowed the bare necessities again; heaters, drinking water, agriculture, all struggling to survive under dim fluorescent lights.
And now I stand among them, to learn their knowledge, to become a lightbringer.
The blurs of blue slowly sharpened into bodies. I was surrounded by masked nurses and armored soldiers, soundlessly leading us through a narrow corridor. The facility was more modest than expected, a labyrinth of hallways lined sparsely with sealed metal doors. After countless turns to the left, we arrived outside an empty room, unremarkable, except for the lone examination table it hosted in its center.
A moment later, a nurse led me inside. Before I could settle onto the fragile tissue, he lifted a piercing gun. Panic flared through me, and my eyes immediately betrayed my display of bravery.
Consider it an immunization.
The procedure was like clockwork to him. Within seconds, a round metal plate latched onto my skin. As the pain subsided, pride filled its place; I was officially branded a lightbringer.
We continued down dozens of identical hallways, accompanied by a faint vibration that drummed from the ground. The pulse strengthened as we approached the end of a hallway, met with a broad final door.
Hovering a hand over the pin pad, a soldier pressed in the password, and the iron door creaked open in response. A hypnotizing red radiated through the crack, its warmth drawing my feet forwards. Before they could pry the opening wide enough, the door was shoved ajar. A pair of wild eyes erupted, filled by flares of fury.
The lights flickered once again. Then darkness plunged.
When my eyes became accustomed to dimness again, I made out a frail figure. She collapsed to the ground, soldiers pinning down her lashing limbs. Ashes stained her feet, but as my gaze lingered, I made out muted mauve in the black. Bruises.
My curious eyes climbed up the rest of her body, halting at a familiar metal plate on her neck. She is a lightbringer. For a moment, my artificial peace was ripped away. I rushed out of formation, but before I could reach the woman, a crude shove returned me to my place and a calloused hand stifled my burgeoning screams.
She was gone the moment brightness returned. The door was open fully now, light lulling me back to euphoria. My feet collapsed in cadence to the hum of warmth. I felt compelled to continue the harmony of thuds, marching mechanically towards the beaming screens that shifted between shades of white, blue, eventually settling on a rich crimson.
The brilliance no longer stung, instead, it was a comfort, urging on the bruises beneath my feet.
Steadily, a faint light glowed above. It silently shed a sliver of warmth, essential to the world with collapsed sunlight.
This was how friends should look. I smiled up at Joaquin, adjusting his collar, then leaned forward to straighten Leila’s jacket, and sighed. A disco scene this time. It was all so perfect.
Then, from behind the display, “Where’s Jamie?” It was Helen. My boss.
“Probably hanging out with the mannequins,” Samantha drawled. “I heard she named them.”
Carefully, I extracted my arm from Joaquin’s and tiptoed across the display, my shadow rippling through its blue spotlights. I glanced back, but met only blank stares. Even to the mannequins, I was invisible.
“Back there again?”
“Oh, hi Helen.”
“Jamie, we closed three hours ago. You haven’t clocked out.”
“Nope.” She held her hand up, blocking my words. “Just go home, okay? Get some rest.” She patted my shoulder awkwardly.
“They all think I’m crazy,” I told Marguerite. Her hemline was crooked. I removed a pin and adjusted it. “There.”
Carefully, I shimmied the blouse over her head and carried it to my sewing machine. “I’m not crazy, you know.”
But Marguerite just stood there, hand on hip.
“I just like the designs. It’s…” But I didn’t know how to explain it. The sheen of satin, the way velvet folds just so. The way that pattern complements this one, the way one shade against another can be pure magic. It made sense. I understood it. People, though…
“I just like clothes,” I said finally, and resumed my sewing. At least the sewing machine didn’t talk back.
“Jamie, did you even sleep?”
Helen’s coffee smelled like heaven.
“Jamie? Are you listening?”
“Sorry, Helen. What?”
“I asked if you got any sleep. You look like a wilted hound dog.”
“Finals,” I mumbled, trying not to yawn. “My big showcase is tonight.”
Helen chewed her lip. “Coffee’s in the break room. You okay to cover zone three?”
I nodded, already drifting toward the coffee.
“About the display…”
I sagged. “I’ll clock out next time. Promise.” Then I hurried off before she could see my cheeks flush scarlet.
Samantha skulked beside the coffee pot, looking utterly bored. A sullen sentry with too much eyeliner and hair that always covered half her face. Pretty, but she’d cut you if you noticed.
Had I ever actually seen her smile?
“Your face is red,” she said, tonelessly. “Matches your stripes.” She reached out and plucked my blouse. “I like stripes.”
I couldn’t tell if she was mocking me, so I grabbed a mug, avoiding eye-contact.
“Heard you named the mannequins.” Same monotonous drawl.
Coffee in hand, I flashed a smile, and scurried away.
I didn’t see her again until time to clock out, when she practically materialized beside the swiper.
“Where are you going?” No inflection.
I didn’t answer.
“You’re not rearranging the mannequins?”
“I have a real show,” I told her, and left.
The studio was already crowded. Models rushing this way, then that. Panicked students scrounging for spare buttons, trimming threads. Congratulating one another, swapping smiles, and hugs.
My rack waited in the corner, ready. I dressed the models quickly, then took in the whole effect. Perfection. I almost smiled.
Backstage, I watched the other students’ collections march down the catwalk. It was easy to tell which section of crowd belonged to whom. Beaming parents, idiot friends blaring airhorns that didn’t belong at a fashion show, but who cares?
Then it was my turn. I followed the last model out to subdued applause. A polite crowd. It was what I’d expected, until…
“Jamie, you rock!”
I didn’t see who’d shouted, but it didn’t matter. Only one person on the planet could yell like that and still not change her tone. I spotted her in the front row. Samantha, and Helen too, waving a tacky poster collage of the ten thousand ways I’d arranged the storefront display.
I was startled first. Then I smiled. Maybe this was how friends should look.
It was a series of unexpected events stacked up like old coins. Having lost my cell phone, I went into a nearby bar to make a call before going to work.
“Care for a drink?” Handsome men never pay attention to me and, in my job, that’s been very beneficial but his eyes were like blue gas jets.
I nodded while the bartender poured a drink from a crystal decanter. I liked the taste of gin, bitters and bergamot.
“Gotta go but thanks.”
“See you soon.” His voice followed me like blue smoke.
What did he mean? Soon?
As an amethyst sunset streaked across the winter sky, I followed the path other travelers made through the icy snow into the sooty, grey hotel across the street. The halls were strangely empty and darker than usual- older and somehow sadder. I opened the door to where I did my usual research. Inside I found, not a room in the Alexander Palace in Russia, but a disco from the 1980s.
“Back again?” whispered Mr. Blue Jets. His words were like an ear worm which insinuated its way through my ear canal and into my brain. Awash with resignation, I sighed deeply.
“Good. I’m going to need your help.”
“We know you are a time traveler and a counterfeiter.”
“But the disco era?”
“No. no. no. This is Moscow in 2016. A Russian is going to need documents to get away from the Great Bear. We want you to provide them. Your best work.”
“Russia in 2016 with a disco bar???” I couldn’t fathom the words and had to repeat them as if doing so would make things more real.
“Oh, yes. Spacebo. A very popular place in Moscow. An American opened it. Our guy fell in love with one of the American dancers and he wants to follow her out.”
I looked at the dancers and wondered if it was the mini-skirted red-head or the luminous blonde in bell bottoms.
“The Russians just don’t want their people to travel outside the country these days. And if our guy doesn’t get out to America to work on that virus it will destroy half the population in 2030.”
I staggered back trying to take it all in. My father and grandfather had both been time travelers and historians. But history was unpopular these days so with my art skills I became a counterfeiter. Occasionally, I was able to trace an artifact from the past into my present and sell it to an antiquesman. On this trip, I had hoped to find a Faberge just before the Romanovs’ deaths. But this time the surprise was not in a jeweled egg but on the dance floor.
My family left me with skills for handling the unplanned on our voyages but this situation was totally unexpected.
“Can’t the people in 2016 take care of things?” I whispered.
“We know you leave no trace. You work fast. We really need that this time. There are other time travelers who will try to stop us when they find out. “
You know? Other travelers??
Rule one in my family was to go along with whatever situation you found yourself in.
We slipped into a nearby room away from the strobe lights and the undulating crowd. I worked all night on the passport. It was “our guy’s” first trip abroad. Like Mr. Blue Jets, he was a handsome man. About thirty-five years old. Blue Jets said he was a virologist with special skills.
The next morning, I awoke in the hotel room as I usually did after my travels. My mouth was dry. My head ached. My fingers were stained with black ink. In front of me, the crystal decanter gleamed on the burled walnut table. Nearby was a Faberge egg and a vellum card with the words “See you around…”
No other trace.
‘VROOM-A THRUMA, VROOM-A THRUMA.’ Pounding moog growlers vibrated through my bones. Beyond the ring of stage lights, nine-hundred thousand feet pounded the bleachers in unison.
Brandon and I posed, waiting for our cue. Slight movement backstage drew my attention. I peered into the darkness where six soldiers locked stage doors and took up post.
Scanning the Coliseum I spotted Imperaptial Guards at every door—weapons drawn.
He squeezed my hand. “I see them, Ann.”
Above us, stage crew hustled—setting colored pegs into massive control boards. The giant-dome holograms focused in on these. Curious. Why were colored pegs important enough for them to project their enlarged images to the crowd?
‘VROOM-A THRUMA,’ music started. ‘VROOM-A THRUMA,’ lights rose. Overhead fans engaged and multi-colored mist swirled back, revealing us—the Dance Champions—each team representing a different world by color. We were orange for Terran II. Deafening applause erupted.
Three…two…one. We leapt into our routine. With a flying kick-split I spun off my pedestal, balancing in an arm-stand onto Brandon’s shoulders. Lifting a hand to the small of my back, he supported me as I slid into an aerial arabesque. We turned, Mambo-sacheting—skimming across the floor light as helium. Circling round and through, we joined the other dancers in a braided couples chain. After the repeat, Brandon leaned me into a hammerlock backbend, where we held position as couple-teams danced their solos.
I looked up and saw Grand Vizier Gericon’s entourage near the top of the dome in a lavish seating box. And there He was—leaning over our proceedings--our Galaxy’s supreme leader with his distinctive, bent-nose profile. But the golden flash of Yellow robes truly identified him. I narrowed my eyes.
As a child I’d loved Yellow above all colors, but could never so much as touch a buttercup—for Yellow belonged to our Vizier. Holding a Yellow object broke Galactic Law punishable by death.
Brandon’s pale face reflected blue in the stage lights. A sheen of sweat glistened on his forehead and upper lip. His hot whisper tickled my ear, “I heard Stage Manager saying our Vizier Gericon calls this Dance Competition his “Law of Chance.” He loves a good gamble, our Vizier—thinks it the fairest way to control population during times of peace.”
I crunched my eyebrows.
A sharp crack rent the air. Our stage suddenly tilted…split…and broke into chunks. Holes gaped. Huge pieces plummeted toward the planet miles below—while others floated.
Dancers struggled for footing and kept on dancing. But two couple fell. Green and Blue teams teetered, slipped, and spun away into the abyss…their screams drowned out by thundering crowds, until a groaning wrench of metal silenced the multitude…and Coliseum Sections Blue and Green broke away. Thousands of people, screaming hysterically, plummeted into the chasm.
And now Brandon’s words, “Our Vizier loves a good gamble…fairest way to control populations…” sank in. Every fallen Dance Champion pulled their World’s audience into the void with them.
Panic erupted. Imperaptial Guards forced people to stay in their seats.
Our dance-floor broke again. Pieces shifted, dropping and rising at random. More teams fell. World sections plummeted.
Brandon and I moved into Lindy Hop.
Stage pieces split smaller—grew less stable. We jumped from one block to another.
A sudden shard rocketed up, catching my feet. It catapulted me up to the overhead stage crew—busily plucking out the colored pegs of teams that fell…releasing the corresponding Audience Sections to plummet away.
As if in slow motion, I saw a Yellow peg on the control board in front of me. My hand shot out. Our Imperaptial Visier hunched like a vulture over carrion. Our eyes met—his widening in astonishment, as I plucked the Yellow peg from the control panel.
After the last Greek Orthodox Youth of America (GOYA) dance, looking for some “hot stuff” baby, this evening or any evening was officially banned. Our Sunday school teacher, Mrs. Papacantpronounce, declared the dancing inspired by the song was inappropriate for future church leaders—especially on church property.
“No more bumping bottoms on the dance floor.” She put her hands on her ample hips, waiting for our tittering to subside.
“I’d pay to see her do the bump.” A boy named Cord mumbled.
Mrs. Papa glared at him and Kiki, the buxom brunette beside him. “And no groping during slow songs.”
To our horror, she declared all GOYANs would take dance lessons. A GOYAN mom and personal friend of the owner of Westbury Dance Studio arranged the classes.
“I don’t need lessons.” Cord scowled. “I’ve got the right moves.”
I glanced at my best friend Celeste, and rolled my eyes. That’s why we ran into the ladies’ room when Stairway to Heaven came on.
Saturday, six girls and four boys, forced by our mothers and bribed with the promise of ice cream at Rumpleheimer’s, met Mrs. Papa at the studio and lined up in front of the mirrored wall. Our instructor, an aging John Travolta look-alike, strutted out in tight white pants and jazz shoes.
“Forward, two, three, kick! Back, two, three, kick!”
We moved like a herd of cattle. Mr. John frowned, sashayed to the record player, and blasted the Bee Gees.
“My assistant and I will demonstrate.”
A woman wearing a flowing skirt pirouetted up, batting her eyes. Celeste squirmed uncomfortably.
The pair shimmied across the room. Then Mr. John spun the woman, her skirt billowing, exposing creamy thighs and leaving nothing to our thirteen-year-old imaginations. The two had clearly tangoed before.
Mrs. Papa gasped. “This isn’t what we signed up for!”
“Find a partner, everyone!”
The boys fought to dance with Kiki. I cringed as Mr. John nudged Cord toward me. Towering over him, I stiffened as I positioned myself in his outstretched arms.
“Fever night, fever night, fever… " Cord sang into my chest, then looked up at me, emphasizing the next line. “We know how to do it.”
He hustled forward when he should have hustled back and I tried to correct him.
“Hey, I’m the man!” He tightened his grip. “You’re supposed to follow me!”
“Then lead.” I struggled to get us on the right count.
Mr. John split us up and paired Celeste with me. He studied our height difference, clucked his tongue, and stated the obvious. “You’ll have to be the boy.”
He instructed the boys and me to form strong frames with our arms.
“Ladies, close your eyes and surrender to your leading man.”
I was almost thankful to be the male. It was better than being led anywhere by a boy like Cord.
“Ouch!” Celeste complained. “You stepped on my toes again.”
Mr. John reached for her hand. “May I cut in?” He spun her effortlessly. “You dance just like your mother.”
Celeste’s mother! I studied his assistant, her curly hair, the clingy bodysuit, and tried to imagine my own mom wearing something other than elastic waist jeans with a man other than my dad.
Mr. John gave Celeste a final twirl. “You just need the right partner.”
Don’t we all? I glanced at the GOYANs who had resorted to line dancing, gyrating toward their bored reflections in the mirror. But I’m sure not going to find him here.
Class ended. The pressure to find the perfect partner was over, at least for now. I started for Rumpleheimer’s, the others hustling to keep up. Maybe I wasn’t a good follower, but that would be to my advantage anywhere but the dance floor.
“Hey,” Cord shouted. “I know a shortcut!”
Ignoring him, I continued walking, never missing a beat. And the others were happy to let me lead.