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 #105.” Include your name and mailing address. Entries without a name and mailing address will be disqualified. Paste your submission directly into the body of the email; attachments will not be opened.
Out of over 150 entries, Writer's Digest editors selected the following five finalists. The winning entry will be published in the November/December 2020 issue of the magazine.
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
Voting closed—Check back for winner soon!
I flip through her photos when colors of blue and yellow strike me. A child, small and shyly hiding behind a bunch of brightly colored […searching…]
My overheating processor won’t stop feeding me information about this peculiar plant they’re holding. Black-eyed susans. Humans give such strange names to their flora and fauna. I send a small dose to my processor to shut down the flood of information and let myself go dark. When I wake up, my skin-like outer layer itches and turns as red as the substance […searching…] blood flowing in the veins beneath it.
I begin to heat up again. I need to do it soon. I look at the picture again. All of the other pictures are of her but I can’t use them. It’s been done by others before but this is only my second time. The chances of success for that option are slim. My location sensor pings alerting me that she’s 8 minutes away. It must be now. If I don’t do it, I’m stranded and as good as dead.
I shed my outer layer and swallow the photo. I can feel my body producing its new shroud. When my line of sight shrinks, I know that I’ve gotten something right but not entirely. Something else is off, but I don’t have time to investigate. The black-eyed susans form in my hand. Its stems dry, petals frail and begging for an end. This isn’t right. I open and close my hands again.
This time fresh flowers form. 2 minutes. Is this what green feels like? My last host was able to feel and hear colors. I wanted to explore the topic more but every time I made an attempt to find out more information, I would begin to degrade just as I did a few minutes ago. 1 minute.
My shroud pulls and pushes my limbs into position. Tires crunch against the dirt and rocks. Beneath my shroud, I start to feel cold and dry. I’ve never gotten used to the feeling of my true self being exposed to the combination of gases. Hopefully, if all goes well, I won’t have to worry about this feeling again.
“Jack” the woman coos, “What are you doing?”
I pause before speaking, realizing that I don’t know what this child sounds like. I release a small group of chemical signals to prevent cease any attempts to speak.
“Hmm. Why does this feel…”
I don’t want the woman to make the connection, déjà vu, so I tell the shroud to frown and hide its face.
“Oh, sweetie. I’m so— Don’t cry. I love them. Thank you so much! Can I have a hug?”
This is it. As she bends down to embrace the child… me, I let my shroud down. I feel each of my cells copy hers, turning her into me. If she was aware of anything then she did not show any indication. My new host. As my new body rids itself of the pesky original cells, I pay close attention to the stinging prickling sensation. Once my sight is renewed it will be all done.
When I can see again, I find myself looking at the sky. My outer layer is no longer old and infected. I don’t itch and my processor doesn’t burn as I make the woman’s memories of the last two days hours my own. I toss the flowers, get into the vehicle and make the drive back to my own damaged transport. Between the engine and the clanging of tools, a transmission notification alerts me. It’s from my child.
“Did it work? Are you coming home soon?”
“Yeah, I’ll be home soon.”
Six feet. How can anything grow from being buried so deep into the earth? And how can I get my heart back? These thoughts crowd my head as shovelfuls of dirt clobber the top of the white casket.
I squeeze the wilted flowers until cramps make me relax my fingers and they scatter at my feet on the ground. I stare at the mound in front of me as if my eyes can tunnel through and see his smile. The one he gave me yesterday as he ran into the fields, plucking yellow wildflowers to make me a bouquet.
Before the roosters crowed, I turned on my back on the edge of the bed and opened my eyes. My cotton muumuu stuck to my skin by a sheen of sweat. I automatically reached to remove the bedsheet off Bélizaire’s face. He wasn’t there. I lit the kerosene lamp on the floor, stood and stretched my back and opened the window.
“Boy, it’s too early?” I raised the lamp over my head. The moon had already faded to make room for the rising sun. “What was the dream now?” I teased. “A flying pig with red eyes or a talking donkey?”
“Manman.” He sniffed. “I was kinda not sleeping this time. Toto had wings and it flew away, crying, ‘don’t kill me tomorrow.’”
I smiled. “See, Béli, told you not to name’em,” I said. “Gotta sell the meat to buy your uniform. Thought you’d be excited to start kindergarten next month?”
“I am…but…but I can go in my church clothes.” He threw his arm around the goat’s neck.
I stared at his small frame and wondered why he grew so fast. For years, I tried to have a child. I prayed. I fasted. I cried. Then, two months after Gaston left, I found out I was pregnant. It was as though the gift was only mine.
Weeks later, I tied my baby to my back and worked the small plot in the back of our two-room hut for the food we need and raised goats and chickens to provide for everything else.
Belizaire held my hand, a small basket of beans on his head. We sang church hymns he’d learned from Sunday school. Soon, we stopped by the river, under the breadfruit tree. I lifted the sack of plantain, yucca and coconut off my head and placed it on the ground. I rotated my shoulders to release the kinks, before spreading a cloth on the floor. Bélizaire massaged my neck, his hands like butterflies’ wings on my skin. “Manman, when I’m big, I’ll buy you a big house in Port-Au-Prince like Auntie’s.” He jumped in front of me and opened his arms wide. “With lots of food.”
I patted his gleeful face. “I know, Béli, but I’m happy here in the village.”
“But …but you won’t ever need to kill again.” He kissed my cheek and sat across from me to eat his lunch.
“You’re my gift from God, my little wise man.” I smiled. “I won’t ever need anything more than you.”
He raised his head from his plate and touched his chest. “I’ll always be with you, Manman.”
Later, he played with the boys across the road, taking the goat with him and laughing as if he was choking with joy.
“Béli, where’s the goat?” I asked.
“I…don’t know. It was behind me.”
I took his hand. “Let’s go find it.”
He ran ahead of me. “Slow down, Béli.”
He plucked the yellow ones, the sunset framing his smiling face. He extended the bouquet toward me. “Here, Manman.” He laughed. I rushed to grab him. The cliff. My hand brushed his fingers. He released the flowers.
I look around. I’m alone. I pick a yellow petal off the ground, waiting for my heart to sprout from the mound.
Flowers for the Back Door
Noah sprinted outside, the screen door banging behind him. “Honey, you don’t have to!” I shouted. “Grandpa won’t be mad, I promise—”
But Noah wasn’t making a break for it. Instead, he’d waded waist-deep into the yellow daisies I’d let run wild over the hillside. Yanking up a handful, he thrust them toward me. “Like this, Mommy? Is this how I give the flowers to the back door?”
“The back door?” Language was still a work in progress for Noah. Aged three plus that all-important and a half, to him what you opened during a rainstorm was a sunbella. “Oh, the ambassador. Yes, great job.”
During the week that followed, we discovered that I’d been too quick to approve his technique. Apparently, you can’t hand flowers any which way to the first galactic ambassador to Earth.
“Diplomats from both sides, Earth’s world leaders, and media will be there. They, and future generations, will judge every detail of this presentation,” said Ms. Elliot. She held up a sailor suit and a ring bearer-style tuxedo. “We’ll take photos of Noah in both, and have our analysts decide.”
Recalling the Battle of the Easter Outfit, I braced myself. But Noah cooperated. He even agreed to wear shoes, not sneakers. (Talk about miracles…)
He wasn’t the only one who had to wear something new and uncomfortable, at least during the practice sessions. “Is this necessary?” I grumbled, trying to figure out which tentacle of the alien costume I should slip my arm into. Noah was giggling.
“We can’t risk any awkwardness when he sees the Ambassador, Ms. McConnell. Photos, even video, isn’t enough to accustom him to their appearance. He needs to practice, and not giggle.” She gave him a look I’d love to reproduce when he’s postponing bedtime.
“I won’t. I’ll do it just like Chloe,” Noah promised.
Seven years before, his cousin had presented a bouquet to a visiting Prime Minister. (Grandchildren of a former President have their perks.) But Chloe had been five, and no slime had been involved. Ms. Elliot had wanted her to present the flowers to the Ambassador this time, but Dad said it was Noah’s turn.
There are limits to how much a preschooler can practice something. More than once I wanted to quit. But at last Ms. Elliot was satisfied.
Dad was part of Earth’s First Contact committee. Once the Ambassador’s ship had landed at the airport, he greeted her and introduced his suitably sailor-suited grandson. Noah held up the bouquet to the Ambassador, who stretched out a gracious tentacle to accept it.
“His technique is perfect,” Ms. Elliot whispered.
Then a different tentacle snatched the flowers from his hand. “Hey!” Noah yelled.
A second, much smaller Deltarian had squirmed out from under the Ambassador. “My youngest offspring,” she explained.
There was a brief exchange of hoots, sighs, and waving tentacles between mother and child. “My offspring requests the temporary use of this vegetation.”
“Yes, of course,” Dad said, with his famous smile—which was immediately plugged with petals.
“That’s not how you do it!” Noah grabbed for the flowers. I grabbed for Noah. As the Ambassador and I pulled our children apart, Ms. Elliot sucked in her breath. Her committee hadn’t planned for this. Her anti-giggling measures also hadn’t included the media or Dad, who were in hysterics.
The Ambassador squirmed. “My offspring says that if an Earth child can distribute vegetation at this ceremony, he should also be allowed to do so.”
Things went off schedule, but soon Noah and Hoot/Tentacle Dip Then Wave had had a lesson in sharing and how to say “Hello” in each other’s language.
Tomorrow: Earth’s first intergalactic play date.
A Flower of You
“Here she is”, James says, holding a bouquet of sunflowers.
“How do you know they’re ours?” I ask him.
He purses his lips, little dimples sucking in the dirt on his cheeks.
“It has our family mark”, he says confidently.
I smile, securing the strap of his blue overalls. They must have fallen down while he was running through the field.
I glance at the soil patch. Close up is a tiny, silver square plate with P25 engraved in the middle. This whole field is a cemetery. Above the bodies of loved ones grow beautiful sunflowers for REMEMBREX.
“That’s us! Paulson. Right Kasey?”, James asks.
“That’s us. Let’s go home and prepare them.”
We walk through the field toward the main road. By the time we make it to the top of the hill James is exhausted.
“Why did we have to get up so early?”, he pants, wiping sweat droplets on his overalls.
“It could get crowded later. You’re six years old now, but when you’re my age, that hill will be easy.”
Taking in his last bit of energy, James sprints toward the rusty, blue pickup truck parked on the side of the road. We hop inside, James placing the flowers between us.
“That was fast”, Dad’s rough voice chimes from the driver’s seat.
“No crowd”, I say.
Dad locks eyes with me in the rearview mirror. Are you sure? I sense that’s what he’s asking me. I don’t break his glance. It’s time.
Dad sighs and drives us home. It’s a short ride, but it feels like forever. The flowers already look slightly wilted, the bright yellow dimming. Inside, I place them on the kitchen counter. Dad hands me an open envelope. The bold letters on the front are all I can see: REMEMBREX.
“Want help?”, he asks.
I feel the hesitation in his voice. He does not want to help. Not preparing it at least.
“You’re doing a lot already.”
He nods gruffly.
“I’ll get your brother ready.”
Opening the letter, I skip straight to the instructions, which involve blending the flowers with water and a pre-prepared substance provided by the company. I leave the mixture in a glass on the counter, set a timer for one hour, and lay down on the sofa.
REMEMBREX Inc.'s mission is uniting grieving families with their loved ones. The sunflowers on the graves contain the essence of the deceased and can be used to bring the person back to life for 24 hours. We get the letter yearly. This time, we’re using it. I close my eyes, drifting off.
The timer goes off.
“Is it ready?”, Dad asks.
Sitting up, I look toward the stairs. James stands there with Dad. Dad’s face is serious and solemn. He agreed to drink the mixture, so he won’t get to talk to her. I grin noticing the stuffed T-rex in James’ hand.
“I want to show mom what I got for Christmas last year”, James says, hope in his eyes.
Walking into the dining room, a round cake sits at the head of the table. I sit down in front of it, admiring the red frosted letters. Happy Birthday.
Dad sits to my left, the mixture in his hand. James sits to my right.
“Tell her I love her okay? And that if this works, I’ll see her next year”, Dad says.
He drinks the mixture down in one take. After waiting for what feels like forever, I sigh. I stare at the family portrait on the wall. Four years since mom died, and it’s still hard to look at. I hear James gasp. Dad’s face looks softer somehow. More relaxed.
“Mom?” I say hopefully.
Dad turns to me and smiles. Looking in his eyes, I know. It’s Mom.
“Hi sweetheart”, he says.
I smile ear to ear, tears collecting in my eyes. Nothing beats this moment.
A Hope Revived
We can’t help him here.
The words lingered in Harriet’s mind like the smell of cheap Chinese food that had clung to her uniform and filled the principal’s office. She sat with slumped shoulders, staring at the flakes of leather peeling off the steering wheel. She dug the key into the ignition and twisted hard. The car sputtered before coming to life with a disgruntled groan.
Her mind was far from the uneven road lined with graffitied storefronts and crumbling apartment buildings. She was stuck. Her son needed more than his inexperienced teacher could offer.
He was sitting in the middle of the apartment, surrounded by crayon stubs, when she entered. Their neighbor had left a note on the table.
“I told that therapist about Aiden – he’s interested and will call today.”
The note blurred as Harriet’s eyes stung with unshed tears. Please don’t let it be too expensive.
“Hi, Aiden. Are you hungry?”
He didn’t answer. She faced the sparse contents of the kitchen before fixing him a sandwich, picking the bread slices farthest from the growing spot of mold. She carried it over and sat cross-legged in front of him.
“Hey bud. Did you have fun with Mrs. Stewart last night?”
He nodded and finally looked up at her, his clear blue eyes wide.
She cupped his pink cheek. “Good. What did you draw today?”
He handed her the paper. Green and brown crayon spiked in imitation of the tiny cactus decorating the kitchen table, perfectly matched down to the blurry white spikes.
“This is amazing.” She ruffled his soft hair. She glanced at his drawings already stuck by alphabet magnets to the fridge. A corner of the thrifted sofa. The lime mug with the chip on the handle. She bit her lip.
“Let’s find you something better to draw, huh bud?”
Harriet packed up his crayons and buckled him into the car. As the buildings morphed into sprawling houses and open fields, her phone yelped.
She slipped one earphone in. “Hello?”
“Hi, Harriet Bradley?” a man’s voice asked.
“Yes, this is she.”
“This is Dr. Miguel Reyes. Delia Stewart reached out to me regarding your son, Aiden. I understand he has recently been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder?”
“Yeah, his school sent us to a psychiatrist who told us.”
“Was she unable to fit him into her schedule for therapy?”
“She-her services were too expensive for me.”
“Ah I see.” Harriet felt a hot flush come to her cheeks.
“I know how financially difficult therapy sessions can be on single parents.” He paused. “I would like to offer my services free of charge.”
Her grip on the steering wheel tightened. She cleared her throat several times. “Are you sure?”
“Aiden sounds like a very talented child and I want to support you both as best I can.”
“I-I can’t thank you enough. You don’t know what this means to me.”
“I’m happy to help.” His voice was soft. “My son has autism too.”
Harriet wiped her eyes as they pulled up to a sprawling field of sunflowers. Aiden cautiously climbed out and gazed at the cheery flowers with wide eyes. She nudged him closer to the tall, arching stalks and turned her face to the sky. She wasn’t sure if anyone was listening, but she sent up a teary thanks, just in case.
Her eyes flew open at the rare sound of his sweet voice calling out to her. Her face stretched into a wide grin. He bounded towards her with a fist full of flowers, their yellow petals reaching high towards the climbing sun.