52 Week Short Story Challenge #7 – Double Exposure

board-52-week-short-story-challenge-graphicThis week’s prompt came from the mind behind the 52 Week Short Story Challenge, SM Cadman!

sunday-prompt-mineI really enjoyed this one, in case you couldn’t tell when you’re reading it. It took me forever to put it up, though, mainly because I had a stressful couple of days at work and by the time I could get to wifi to post it my hair was wet and it was cold outside. First world problem, I know.

Double Exposure

“Welcome to Photo Express, how may I help you?” The photo technician behind the counter was almost too friendly and Emily smiled at him.

“I have some pictures for Emily Perrine,” she said. “I uploaded them about half an hour ago.”

“I think those just finished printing,” the tech said. “Let me go take a look.” He turned and went through a small door into the back of the lab and Emily looked around. A variety of photo products were arranged on the shelves, from hardcover books with smiling kids on the front to t-shirts with more smiling kids on them. There was even what looked like a stadium blanket and she lifted the corner to see if there was a price tag, curious to see how much someone would pay for a blanket with their kids’ faces on it.

“It’s ridiculous,” a voice from the counter said. It didn’t sound like the photo tech, and Emily turned to see who had spoken. There was only one other person in the photo lab, a young woman who looked about the same age as Emily. Her dark hair fell around her face in thick curls so perfect they could have come out of a magazine, and she was wearing a blousy tank top under a thin cardigan. A long necklace, dark skinny jeans and flats completed the look, and Emily felt like she should have put something a little nicer than yoga pants and a baggy t-shirt. It was a nice t-shirt, but it wasn’t in this other girl’s league.

“Excuse me?”

“The blanket. The price is ridiculous.” The brunette looked up at Emily, tucking a curl behind her ear and making her self-conscious about her red ponytail. She pointed at a small binder on the counter by the photo products. “The prices are in there.”

“Oh,” Emily said, at a loss for what else to say. She went over to the binder and opened it. As much as she wanted to strike up a conversation with the other woman, she also knew she wouldn’t be able to rest without knowing what she considered to be a ridiculous price. Emily ran her finger down the list of prices until she found ‘personalized throw’ and nearly choked when she saw the price. “Eighty-five dollars?”

“Yup.” She looked back down at the photos on the counter and pursed her lips. Emily closed the binder a little more heavily than necessary.

“That’s more than ridiculous,” Emily said. She joined the brunette at the counter and she looked up at Emily curiously. “It’s criminal.” She stuck out her hand. “I’m Emily.”

“Russe,” the other woman said, shaking her hand with a smile. “Nice to meet you. You printing pictures for a wedding scrapbook too?”

“No, baby book. I was the designated photographer at the baby shower, and my job included getting the pictures done so my friend’s mom can paste them in the book with some way too intricate borders and give it to Jamie while she’s high on whatever they give you during childbirth now.” Emily looked at the photo product wall. “Maybe I should take a brochure.”

“Tell her about the blanket. Grandmothers love stuff like that,” Russe said, leaning over the photographs. “The wedding scrapbook is kind of a group effort. A bunch of us have been taking pictures and we’re going to give it to her when she comes back from her honeymoon. We’re planning on getting together a couple of times to work on it and have some drinks.”

“That sounds fun,” Emily said. She looked around the lab and her eyes fell on a small display of film. It was stuck in the corner so she almost didn’t see it, but she laughed when she did. Russe looked around to see what she was laughing at. “Film,” Emily said, pointing at the stand. “Real, honest-to-god film for cameras.”

“Really?” Russe followed her finger and abandoned her photos on the counter to go pick up one of the small, faded paper boxes. “I can’t even believe people still use this stuff. I mean, besides professional photographers.”

“I don’t even think they do, to be honest,” Emily said. She joined Russe at the display and picked up a box, then turned it around to see if film had an expiration date. “The last time I had to deal with a pro, they had a handful of memory cards.”

“Easier to store, I guess. I’ve lost them before, though, at a music festival. I’d lose it completely if it was my job though. Can you imagine reaching into your pocket and your whole weekend’s work just being gone? I’d be drowning my sorrows before noon.” This made Emily laugh, and she was trying to think of something else to say when the photo tech came from the back with a small, colorful cardboard envelope in his hand.

“Here you go, Miss Perrine. You want to take a look at those before you pay?”

“That would be great,” Emily said, going back to the counter with Russe. She took the envelope from the tech and opened it while Russe went back to picking through her photos. Emily took hers out and spread them on the counter like Russe had. She wasn’t sure she would have done it if the other woman hadn’t done it first but it seemed like the right thing to do.

“Excuse me,” Russe said, waving to the tech. “A couple of these only printed on half the paper.” He hurried over and looked at the pictures.

“I’m sorry about that,” he said. “Sometimes the roll gets thrown off. I’ll be happy to reprint those for you. Check the others to make sure these are the only ones.” He turned his attention to Emily. “Could you check yours thoroughly too? I’d hate for you to get home and find that yours were wrong.” She nodded and Russe looked over at her pictures.

“Any good ones in here?”

“There are a couple,” Emily said, blushing a little. She tugged one out of the bunch and showed Russe. In it a woman with an almost comically distended abdomen was holding up a handmade quilt and beaming. “I made this.”

“You did? That’s gorgeous!” Russe reached down and started pushing around the pictures. Emily was still humming with happiness over Russe saying she liked the quilt so she let her do it. “Are there any more? I really—“ Her words were cut off abruptly as she saw something among the pictures that had surprised her. “Who’s this?”

“Who?” Emily looked at the picture she was pointing at. In it she was standing with a sandy-haired man who was grinning at the camera. His arm was around her shoulders, drawing her to him, and they looked like the perfect couple. She blushed even harder. “That’s Everett. My boyfriend.”

“Your boyfriend?” Russe shoved the pictures back at her, then snatched a picture from her pile and shoved it at Emily. “Everett is my boyfriend!”

Emily was speechless. It was definitely Everett, and the picture was similar to the one she had taken with him at the beach, only they were on a hiking trail. His arm was around Russe and she was kissing him on the cheek, something that suggested he had been with her longer. Emily’s stomach had gone cold and hard, and she tried to think of something to say. As horrible as Everett’s betrayal made her feel, the thought that the connection she thought she’d made with Russe had been permanently severed was almost worse.

“We’ve only been going out about two weeks,” Emily said, trying her hardest to justify something that wasn’t her fault. “I didn’t know he was seeing someone.”

“Two weeks?” Russe’s anger seemed to be deflating like a balloon before Emily’s eyes, and she nodded. Russe took the picture of her and Everett and crushed it into a ball in her hand. “I’ve only been dating the jerk for three. Guess it’s better to find out now, huh?”

“Yeah,” Emily said, relieved. She watched Russe pick the photos of herself and Everett out of the stack and tear them in half, wondering how long it would take the woman to call her ex-boyfriend and tear him a new one. Emily’s first instinct was to be angry as well, but it somehow didn’t hurt as much as she would have expected. A crazy idea came to Emily all at once and she cleared her throat. Russe looked over at her with still-blazing eyes.

“What is it?”

“This might be the worst time to ask, but would you like to get something to eat with me?” She smiled at Russe, hoping she wasn’t making a huge mistake. If she was, it was going to be an embarrassing wait for the tech to come back and check her out. Russe didn’t say anything at first and Emily continued to smile as she planned her exit. Abandoning the pictures would put a crimp in her baby book plans but the sooner she could get home to a pint of gelato the better.

“Are you asking me out?” Russe didn’t look angry. The look on her face was more surprised and Emily nodded.

“Yes?”

“All right,” Russe said, her face breaking into a smile. “I’d love to.” She scooped the pictures she hadn’t torn up into a pile and stuffed them into the envelope. “Excuse me,” she called back through the door to the technician. “We’d like to go ahead and pay!” Emily, unable to believe her luck, stuck all the prints but the ones of her and Everett into the envelope and pulled out her wallet.

“I’m just reprinting the ones that were half-printed,” the tech said.

“Here,” Russe said. She shoved the torn pictures across the counter at him. “I’ll pay for them but I want you to throw them away.”

“Mine too,” Emily said. The tech looked at the pictures, frowned, then looked at the women in surprise. Emily was trying to think of something to say when Russe put her arm around her waist and smiled at her, causing her to blush furiously.

“You know what?” Russe took out her wallet and threw thirty dollars on the counter. “Keep the change. If you’re buying me lunch, I can pay for the stupid pictures. Come on.” She nodded toward the door and Emily went, still not quite believing what had happened. It wasn’t how she’d expected her day to go but this was much, much better.

“What are you going to tell Everett?”

“Oh, I’ve got a pretty good idea.” With a smirk, Russe stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and took out her phone. She held it at arm’s length so that both she and Emily were in the frame, then stuck up her middle finger. Grinning, Emily did the same and Russe snapped the picture, then sent it in a text message with no words. “I’m starving,” she said, dropping her phone into her bag.

“Me too,” Emily said. “Can you send me a copy of that picture?”

“Oh, absolutely,” Russe replied. “I think I’ve got a new phone background.”

52 Week Short Story Challenge #3 – Make A Wish

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I came up with this week’s prompt when I was at my mother in law’s house picking up the laundry. There was a pile of leaves in the breezeway of the apartment where she lives and for a second I thought “how the hell did a toad get up here?” Then the leaves blew away but i couldn’t stop thinking about the toad.

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Make A Wish

If Cassie hadn’t been looking up from her phone at that exact moment, she might not have seen the toad. In fact, two or three more steps forward and she probably would have stepped on it.

“Hey little guy,” she said, stopping in her tracks. “What are you doing up here?” The toad stared at her, its rapidly working throat the only movement she could see by the fading light. The sky was turning from lavender to a deep blue blanket speckled with stars and Cassie tapped her phone’s screen to get to the camera. She wanted to take a photo of the toad before the light was gone.

From her limited experience with toads, she expected it to hop away as soon as she got closer, but it simply sat there staring at her with eyes whose pupils looked far more human than any amphibian she’d ever seen. She squatted down to take the picture and the toad locked eyes with her. She noticed, much to her surprise, that they were silver.

If you could have one wish, what would you ask for?

The voice popped into her head unexpectedly, as clear and businesslike as if she was speaking to a man sitting across from her in an interview. She frowned and pressed a hand to her forehead, then looked around as if she expected to see someone behind her. There was no one else around and the last of the sun had finally disappeared, leaving Cassie and the toad in almost total darkness.

“This is crazy,” she said, standing up. “For a second I thought you were talking to me.”

Who said I wasn’t?

Cassie stared down at the toad, who was now looking up at her. Its silver eyes hadn’t left hers for a moment, and when the light on the roof came on they seemed to glow. Apart from its eyes there was nothing about the toad that would give any indication that there was something unusual about it. It looked like a run of the mill, everyday toad.

I can grant you a single wish, the voice in Cassie’s head said as the toad hopped closer to her. Just one. And it can be anything. None of those restrictions from legends and movies. Love, money, even bringing someone back from the dead. I can do all those things and more.

“How?” Cassie couldn’t shake the feeling that she was losing her mind. She’d come up to the roof to clear her head after getting her second notice from the debt collection people, not have a conversation with a toad. Yet here she was, actually talking back to a voice that might or might not be all in her imagination.

Does it matter? Make a wish and I will grant it.

“This is completely ridiculous,” Cassie said, at the same time thinking about what she would wish for. Talking to a toad was weird enough and believing it could grant her a wish was bumping right up against the edge of a break with reality, but there was no harm in considering the question. If she could wish for one thing, anything at all, what would it be? The obvious answers like world peace and a cure for cancer flitted through her head but Cassie pushed them aside. There was no one around, and the toad’s half of the conversation was only in her head. She could be as selfish as she wanted and no one would know the difference.

“All right,” she said, squatting down again so that she was closer to the toad’s level.

Good, the voice said. Tell me what you want most.

“Money,” Cassie said. “A hundred thousand dollars. I want to pay off my credit cards and my car loan, and not have to ask my parents for money anymore.” The toad closed its eyes and nodded but nothing happened.

Cassie wasn’t sure what she had been expecting. A notification from her bank saying that she was suddenly $100,000 richer? A man stepping out of the doorway to hand her an oversized cardboard check? Neither of those things made any sense, and Cassie almost burst out laughing. None of this made any sense. It was more likely that she was tired and imagining things, or that she had fallen asleep on the roof and this was all a dream.

“So much for making a wish,” she said, straightening up. “At least my brain didn’t make me try to kiss you.” She was just about to walk away when she decided that even though it hadn’t given her the cash she wanted, she couldn’t leave it on the rooftop. She had no idea how it had gotten onto the roof but she doubted it was going to be as lucky on an attempt to get down.

“Come on, toad,” she said, scooping it up. “I’ll take you down to the garden. Save you the trouble of trying to get down the stairs.” The toad was silent and she stuck her cell phone in her back pocket and headed down the stairs that led to the roof.

There were people hanging around the front of the building as always, laughing and joking as if they hadn’t a care in the world, and Cassie couldn’t help wondering if they ever went to work. She walked past them without making eye contact and found herself wishing for the thousandth time that she could afford to live somewhere else.

That’s what I should have wished for, she thought. It has just as much a chance of coming true as anything else. One of the men hooted loudly and she went around the corner of the building to the garden along its side. Cassie deposited the toad in the flowerbed and smiled.

“Have a good night, toad,” she said. The toad didn’t respond and she turned to go back inside, steeling herself for the walk through her neighbors’ impromptu get together. If the guy with the blonde hair was there, she could expect at least one comment about her ass.

When she was finally in her apartment with the door locked, Cassie sank down onto the couch and leaned her head against the back. There was no way a toad could have given her money, yet she couldn’t help feeling somewhat disappointed. Even if it had just been for a few moments, she’d expected something to happen. Her back pocket started vibrating and she pulled out her phone, the familiar sensation of fear whispering through her when she saw it was an unknown number.

“Dammit,” she sighed. The only people that called her from unknown numbers were debt collectors and she’d been successfully avoiding them for the last few weeks, but something told her that this was the moment to answer the phone. I’ll just tell them I don’t have any money to give them, she thought. It’s the truth. “Hello?”

“Are you Miss Cassie Bates?” The voice on the other end wasn’t what she expected. It was a little warmer, and didn’t sound like it was reading from a script. There was something unsettling about it, though, and she responded cautiously.

“Yes.”

“Miss Bates, my name is Richard Reilly and I’m an attorney in Minneapolis representing your parents.” He took a deep breath while Cassie was trying to process his words. She couldn’t understand why a lawyer would be calling her but had a feeling it wasn’t good. “I’m very sorry to be the one to give you this news but your parents were killed in an accident two days ago. We’ve been trying to contact you but couldn’t get in touch until now.”

“My parents?” Cassie’s entire body felt cold. The voice on the phone kept talking but there was a strange, high-pitched noise overlaying it that made it hard for her to make out what the lawyer were saying. Her parents were dead? There had to be a mistake. “There’s no way my parents are dead.”

“I’m sorry,” Richard said. “Their car was hit by a semi that drifted into their lane. If it’s any consolation, they were killed instantly.” His voice was calm but it made even less sense than the conversation she had – or thought she had – with the toad. Cassie had no idea what she was supposed to say to any of this, and Richard took her silence to mean he could go on. “I’m going to need you to come down to the office as soon as possible to sign the paperwork,” the lawyer said. “The insurance company wants to pay out right away for some reason. They’re never this pushy about it but it’s going to work in your favor.”

“Insurance?”

“Yes. Between your parents, their life insurance payout is just over two hundred thousand dollars.” He said more, but Cassie didn’t hear it. The phone fell out of her hand as she covered her face. To her next-door neighbors, her agonized sobs sounded just like screaming.

Underneath her window, the toad worked its throat and smiled. The next day her voice would be little more than a croak. That was how it started.

That was always how it started.

52 Week Short Story Challenge #1 – No Such Thing As A Free Meal

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Some of you may have noticed I haven’t been writing much lately. A number of things have happened and I really haven’t felt much like writing. More on that later, I’m not really in the mood to expound on my troubles. What I am in the mood to do is post a short story here for your reading pleasure.

This is the first in a series of 52 short stories written as part of the 52 Week Short Story Challenge, the goal of which is to get a cool cat by the name of SM Cadman back into the writing groove. She, like me, has been feeling pretty slumped due to depression and created this challenge as a way to break through. I thought it was a good idea, so I’ll be posting one short story a week based on a prompt. If you’d like to read along, or better yet join in, follow her blog or on Twitter and the prompts will arrive on Sundays.

It’s going to be fun!

This week’s prompt:

prompt-1

No Such Thing As a Free Meal

The inspector rubbed her forehead as she sat in her car in the parking lot of The Pho House. It was only the third restaurant she’d been to that afternoon but she was already exhausted. She opened her glove compartment and grabbed the Excedrin out of it with her eyes closed, then chased two of the tablets with a mouthful of warm water from the bottle that had been sitting in her passenger seat all day. Nothing about it was pleasant, but that was par for the course for her day.

She was screwing the cap back onto the water when her phone started ringing. Grimacing, she picked it up without checking to see who it was. There were only a few people who actually called her and she couldn’t ignore any of them, even if she was seriously considering quitting.

“Williamson.”

“Hey, baby,” a voice she wasn’t expecting said. She smiled for the first time since she’d left the house. “We still on for six?”

“Not unless you can work a miracle,” Keshia Williamson said, looking up at the restaurant’s door, which was now sporting a ‘closed’ sign in spite of it being the middle of the day. “I’m way, way behind schedule and I’ve still got three places on my list.”

“So just do a quick walkthrough and give ‘em a C. We can make the seven o’clock movie.”

“Boy, that’s what got this whole mess started in the first place. I’ll get done when I get done.” Her headache seemed to be getting worse instead of better and she sighed. “I’ll call you as soon as I’m on my way back to the office.”

“No texting? Real call?”

“Real call. Love you, baby.” She hung up the phone and dropped it into her console, then started the car. If she was going to get anything close to finished before the sun went down she had to get going. In an attempt to get herself worked up, she put on some old Missy Elliott and tried to nod her head as she backed out of the parking space.

By the time she made it to Ricky’s House of Ribs, Keshia’s headache had receded just enough to make her feel functional again and she pulled into one of the spaces at the front of the building. There were only two other cars in the lot and she was glad. If there was a scene like the one at Kung Pao Kitchen, she didn’t want to see her face on YouTube later that night when she was trying to relax.

Keshia got out of the car and straightened her blazer, then slung her bag over her shoulder and picked up her leather folio from the passenger seat. Once she was convinced that she looked the part of a competent health inspector, she strode up the front walk and pushed on the windowless door only to discover that it was locked.

She looked at the business hours posted by the door and frowned. The restaurant should have been open for hours at this point but now that she looked through the window she could see the place was empty. Someone was moving around behind the counter, though, and she knocked on the door as hard as she could. Closed or not, Ricky’s House of Ribs was on her list and she was going to give them the grade they deserved. A minute later, the door unlocked and opened just enough for a man in a dirty t-shirt and jeans to lean out.

“We’re closed,” the man said.

“I’m the health inspector,” Keshia said. “I need to take a look around.”

“The health inspector?” He looked her up and down dubiously, taking in her twist out and the modest silver stud in her nostril. “We’re working on it.”

“I need to see what it’s like right now. I can come back later and amend your grade.” The man looked like he was going to argue with her and she felt herself starting to dig in, like she had so many times before, but he stepped aside and let her in.

“I knew this was coming,” he sighed. The front of the restaurant was dark and he led her to the back of the house. A large black ‘A’ was posted proudly beside their liquor license and Keshia resisted the urge to snort when she saw it. He pushed the door to the kitchen open and motioned for her to go in. “Excuse the mess.”

Keshia braced herself for the worst as she stepped through the door, expecting her guide to immediately launch into a litany of excuses. Instead, she was faced with an empty room that smelled like the inside of a swimming pool. There were squares of rust on the floor where appliances had recently been dragged away, and a bright yellow rolling mop bucket stood in the corner.

“Where’s all your—“ Keshia looked around the room. “—everything?”

“Cleared it out,” the man said, picking up a pack of cigarettes and shaking one out. He lit it with a lighter featuring a picture of a naked woman and took a deep drag. Keshia narrowed her eyes at him and he blew the smoke over his shoulder.

“You know that’s illegal.”

“You’re already here to fine me, what’s one more line on the ticket?” He tossed the lighter on the counter with the cigarettes and extended a hand to her. “I’m Ricky.”

“Miss Williamson,” Keshia said, shaking it. “You renovating?”

“Yup. Contractors are coming next week to take a look at the front end,” Ricky said, taking another drag. “My granddaddy died and left me everything so I’ve got the money. Not to mention I’m gonna be saving money not feeding old Don the Con.”

“Excuse me?”

“You seem like an honest lady,” Ricky said. “No harm in telling you now, unless you already know.” Keshia stared at him and he blew a cloud of smoke over his shoulder. “Which from the look on your face, you don’t.”

“What are you talking about?” Keshia folded her arms over her chest as Ricky sighed and leaned on the counter.

“Free food,” Ricky said, dragging a red plastic ashtray that looked like it had been scavenged from a dive bar over to him. “He’d been doing it for years. Every couple of days, at least once a week, Don would come in here and remind me that my good grade depended on his mood. And to keep him happy we gave him a plate whenever he came in.”

“You traded him free food to keep your A grade?”

“We weren’t the only ones. He was doing it to all the restaurants around here. House of Pho, Uncle Cash’s, whoever he could get to agree.” Ricky stubbed out his cigarette and took out a fresh one. “I made the mistake of telling him we were struggling, hoping to get some sympathy, and he said he’d give me some time to work on it if I’d help him out every now and then. Next thing I knew, he was showing up all the time.”

“Shit,” Keshia said, cursing on the job for the first time in her life. Everything was starting to make sense. She’d already shut down House of Pho, and Uncle Cash’s Place was next on the list. If Don Gibbens had been getting free meals out of dirty kitchens for who knew how long, the raging case of e. Coli he had contracted was suddenly explained. “No wonder that old bastard kept saying he didn’t know where he could have picked it up.”

“I told him I was done two weeks ago,” Ricky said, shaking his head and lighting the cigarette. “That I was gonna clean the place up for real, and he got all mad. Said he’d tell his bosses that I’d been giving him free food and that it was my idea.” Keshia set down her folio and rubbed her forehead. Her headache was back with a vengeance, and she had a feeling it had something to do with the way she was clenching her jaw. Before she could come up with the words for how she felt, Ricky opened his mouth again. “So I made him a special plate.”

“A special what?”

“We left half a rack of ribs out on the counter for a couple of days, then only half cooked ‘em. Drowned ‘em in sauce and served ‘em to old Don when he came in. He didn’t even notice. Gobbled ‘em down like every other time and wanted extra cobbler.” Keshia stared at him with her mouth open and he shrugged. “We shut down that night and I had the appliances hauled out the next morning.”

“You fed a health inspector spoiled meat? On purpose?” She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. It was the most unreal thing she’d ever heard but Ricky wasn’t even trying to deny it. He was just standing there illegally smoking his cigarette as if nothing was wrong. “You know I could shut this place down for good?”

“Probably not,” Ricky said. “Old Don was ripping off every restaurant in this area so you’d have a hard time proving whose food poisoned him. According to him, he was getting three meals a day for free. I wasn’t the only one who had the idea, either. There could have been two or three places pulling the same thing.” He smiled. “In a month I’ll have a whole new restaurant for you to inspect with brand new freezers and pit and everything. I’ll even give you a plate at our Grand Opening celebration.”

Keshia opened her mouth, then closed it. Ricky was right. With Don keeping his mouth shut about the free meals and the kitchen completely gutted, there was no way anyone could tie his food poisoning to the restaurant. The worst she could do was write him a citation for smoking and even that was more effort than she was willing to put in. With this place crossed off the list, she could get through the next two restaurants and make it back home in time for her date with Deron.

“Thanks,” she said, picking up her folio and heading for the door. “I’ll pass.”