Each month, we post a photograph as a writing prompt. Post your 100-word story in the comments section, and we’ll choose one to feature in our next issue. To see examples, read photo stories we’ve published in the past.
Photo credit: Kenneth Lu
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The Image of You
I watch your light flicker in the darkness weaving tiny spells as shadows mime the flame with black ghosts painting a dream of sunshine. The window is cracked open. Red curtains. A heartbeat singed at the corners. I can see your body draped in your likeness. I am reminded of who I once was. Open and free. Able to launch endless surprises. The taste of salt on my lips with language crashing on my shore. Then you disappear. Your figure takes off the view. And I am left with the cruel and glorious magic of what we do not know.
The Back of the Watch
Loners and lovers flickered in cinema projections. Hands pulsed, veins of existence flowing through them, unknowing.
In their own dark rhythms, hearts beat for something in shared places.
He’d brushed against her knees, then shuffled toward the black cloth, into obscurity.
She’d stayed to see the white light, never knowing his face.
Later, in a dim bedsit, the old man struggles with the back of his watch and a screwdriver.
A young woman searches town, ghosted in the glass of windows.
Around 3am the watch ticks silently past the moment she is stopped by a needle in a motel room.
Popcorn crunches are heard all around, smells of fake butter fill my nose and the sensory images of the concession commercials light up the darkness. Looking around all I see are tiny fingers stuck in boxes of candy and chocolate smeared across tiny chins. Plastic cups, too big to handle with just one hand, and dark liquid flies up the straws into tiny mouths. Glup. And the remnants travel back into the cup leaving a trail of bubbles. My hand falls on the little box on my hip, pumping constantly. I sit by, and witness the sugars pumping through them.
The theater was packed. It was almost time for the movie to start and there were no empty seats. Except for the one to her right. Where is he?
Seven years ago, they met up at this very theater for a movie, then had dinner at the romantic Italian restaurant down the street. Tonight they were to do the same. A fresh start, to breathe new life into their comatose relationship. Hard to do if he’s not here.
She checked her phone again, only to see a blank screen. As the house lights came down, she blinked back her tears.
The screen is blank. The soundtrack is silent. But only if you are completely rational. Five year old kids watch cartoons. Men in their sixties are viewing Goodfellas and The French Connection. Their wives are watching a Jane Fonda movie. The Korean War vet is watching his favorite Audie Murphy flick. The fifty year old is laughing at Chris Farley in Tommy Boy.
Joe Pesci looks like someone who could do serious damage to your foot.
I am ushered into a dark room surrounded by strangers.
“Where are we?” Ask a child.
“Welcome,” says a calm voice out of nowhere.
A bright screen in front of me flickers to life.
“Every one of you have endured hardship and suffering, yet you have kept your faith.”
On the screen shows a short reel of everyone’s life.
“You are a part of a new family. Chosen by your only heavenly Father.”
A door to the right opens. A flood of warm light swallows us.
A voice calls out to us, and like a herd of sheep’s we follow.
Viewers are ushered in, seated comfortably and begin to watch the movie of my life. They see what I’ve seen, taste what I’ve tasted. They sleep when I sleep, eat with me, bathe with me. Childhood unabridged, adolescence, decade by decade: love, trauma, adventure, rage, sex, grief. It is simultaneously escapism and reality. Less Science Fiction, more of a narrative through science.
The film was retrieved post mortem, a theatre and staff was hired for the one and only screening. It will be shown in its entirety and run for as long as I lived. It will not be reviewed.
Faced with a serious financial crisis the Tabernacle of the People of Eternal Sunshine had hired their first outsider in a bid to increase revenue.
Josh addressed the management meeting, “We need to extend the product portfolio. Ideas?”
Ompur, the diminutive head of HR, spoke first, “We perform mass weddings, why not apply that concept to the end of life experience?”
“Of course not. I mean a collective Walking Into The Transcendental Light.”
“Ha! Surely you don’t believe that crap?”
Hissing “unbeliever”, they descended upon him as one, clawing at his face, until he eventually saw the light.
Convinced that light led to seeing, and seeing in turn to understanding, citizens were herded into underground chambers and hermetically sealed buildings, permitting the total regulation of sensory perception deemed necessary in order to protect the public from provocative emotions and thoughts. Unfortunately, lightless-ness – not to be equated with total darkness – disturbed the circadian rhythms of the masses, resulting in widespread depression, anxiety, and insomnia. Apprehensive of that which light might reveal, and yet aware of its curative necessity, it was determined that for 105 minutes daily everyone should watch light screened of images; enlightenment freed of content – light light!
Start. We’re Mario, his super 64 self, jumping into pictures to discover the secrets of a world. “Let’s-a go!”
Middle. We’re Carol Anne Freeling, her 1984 forever-young self, locked in a world behind the screen, scared, overwhelmed, yet still curious. “Mommy, where are you? I can’t find you.”
End. We’re Samara, her western remake self, crawling leg over shoulder, a double-jointed hell, out of the dark to shock our friends into going. “7 days.”
We’re Jumanji and Requiem for a Dream and Stay Tuned. It can happen in The Twilight Zone or on Sunset Boulevard. Because that’s entertainment – or not.
My eyes blink open to a glowing movie screen. How I came to be staring at this blank screen in a small theatre with a group of strangers? I don’t know.
As if to mock me, the screen seems to mirror the whitewash of my memory. I can feel the sweat prickling on the back of my neck. Without turning my head I flick my eyes to the side, everyone’s attention is locked to the screen.
Static crackles, then the amplified voice, “We will now begin the review.” My memories flood back, but also, to my horror, onto the screen.
A SAGE’S JOURNEY, ETERNAL
The chalice of knowledge was only half full when demons began to chase his moth-eaten body. He was told the light at the end of the tunnel would be his salvation. There was no tunnel, only nooks and crevices sewn together, dead end dreams. They were right about the light though. It shown bright and heavy, his life played back in high definition. Was this hell? He watched his years expand and contract, people waxed and waned. His mother remained stark, sobbing louder than the beat of his heart; awakening him, untainted, a miracle, immediately forgetting that time was fluid.
I wake up and look at my phone, which is supposed to be off but who listens to the rules? Its 3:00 AM. The movie was over 2 hours ago. I look around and notice everyone’s eyes still glued to the screen. No movement at all. The ushers stand still on either side of the very top row just staring at the screen. Curious why I’m not affected by it, I walk out of the theater as quickly as possible. I see something gliding towards me. I can’t move my body. I’m stuck, just me and my thoughts.
Floating heads in a black sea. Our environment forced us together, but our thoughts divided us before this screen.
Now the sea broke into a wave of murmurs. “What was it?” “Was it real?”
I saw nothing. Was I afraid to ask?
A voice whispered, “What do you see?”
Unafraid, I answered, “Nothing.”
Hushed chatter and disbelief.
A little louder I reprised, “It’s nothing!”
Some heads agreed, “Nothing!”
Darkness. Then a door. Not alone, I walked closer. We pushed until blinding light burst through, together passing the threshold.
Looking back, the opening vanished and a cave wall took its place.
I am watching them watching me, the voyeur. Will they think I am any good? Will they understand?
It is more than pictures it’s a life’s work. Will they fidget in a collective discontent or smile, chuckle even? I imagine what it was like in the hot, smoky theatres. Concealed by the curtain, away from their view, the author, the artist, the creator.
They cannot begin to comprehend the complexities of the burning idea, the forcefully written word, and vulgarness of the screen.
I need to know but cannot watch.
Today I begin, or today I shall be no more.
I saw Corrigan’s anguish and helped him smuggle a candle into the theater. Wax streamed down his scarred fingers like tears, but his chiaroscuro eyes invested too much attention in the screen’s spectacle, so I blew out his light.
He’d already forgotten the candle. Pointed at the screen, said, look, that was my father. A big, small-time actor who’d taught Corrigan it was beautiful to wish upon stars onscreen.
I asked him how about off-screen? Corrigan had witnessed that part himself. The stars lost their wives and moved into small-time hotels with their sons and drowned their wishes in alcohol.
Title: My very first time.
Already April and spring has sprung, everything is bursting with fresh life. I feel so creative, so inspired, I can hardly wait.
The Photo Prompt for the one hundred word story looks as if it was taken from the back of a cinema. There is about twenty six people sitting in possibly five rows. They are all apparently looking at the cinema screen. Although illuminated it is only showing a BLANK screen.
Why am I crying?
It is just a BLANK screen. Just like this sheet of BLANK paper. Just like the BLANKNESS of my mind.
Is this “Writer’s Block”?
Death Movies and Technicolor Lives
Our lives flashed before our eyes. We had to look. Each watching the same screen but a different movie. Our deaths happening at that moment. All over the planet. In that instant we gathered here. Together. Seeing all the technicolor joy and heartbreak and memories that crawled by like magical serpents. There was laughter and crying—a broken kind of silence. But no one looked away. Each event staggered to next conclusion. Around us sirens. Yelling. Or just the dash of an alarm clock. The noise of some hospital and then the bright light as we’re wheeled down a hall.
Every Friday at 8 the cinema would play a film from Hollywood’s Golden Age. For the sentimentally inclined, for the nostalgic, for the gin swillers and hipsters and saccharine girlfriends. She was there every week, seated in the third row from the back five seats along with a cardigan folded on her lap. The night they showed “Roman Holiday”, he dared to sit in the seat beside her. The night they showed “That Touch of Mink”, his hand brushed hers. The night they showed “Casablanca”, he dropped a ring around the straw of her medium Coca Cola.
They all look at the blank screen. The movie had long finished, but still they sit there quietly, rigidly, afraid to move. Waiting for a sign from their Leader that they can stand up.
The Leader steps forward, smiling. He starts clapping, and they all hastily join in. Nodding at each other and clapping, showing their support for the Leader’s latest propaganda video.
They are dismissed, returned to their daily lives of poverty and fear. Their heads filled with images of their glorious leader. Suspicious of their neighbors, they keep to themselves. Afraid to live, but more afraid to die.
Ann sits in front of the large screen. She places her palm against Bill’s. Butter popped aromas fill their nostrils. The lights dim. An action car movie Ann doesn’t care for. Blaring speakers, sounds of engines and sirens.
The screen fades to black. The crowd shuffles through the doors. Jack stays attached to Ann’s body like a leash. They step out into the crisp July air. Stars filled the sky in the hours they were trapped in a gaze. Their laughter echoes the parking lot. Brakes screech, burning rubber. Closer, closer. Ann’s body crumbles, falling to the asphalt.
She was what you’d call a project: the kind of person who lit up a cigarette after a run. Sun limped through a crack in the blinds and I made a shadow rabbit who died dramatically. On Spreckles Island we lay in a depression against the spring wind, Anne under blanket and bloody red light bursting through eyelids. With light that strong you can see right into the future. She on the dock, smoke curling in still air as she caught her breath, a fisherman tossing guts to gulls. Me pulling away, the dock shrinking as she turns.
White, glaring white within a dark room. We sat there, looking at the nothingness of the screen. Silent and still. We have been there for a solid hour and we continued to sit there. Slowly my gaze began to drift from the screen. We were told to look at the screen before we entered the room and to not deviate our gaze from it no matter what. I noticed guards standing within the corners. They were dressed in black body armor and black masks that did not reflect the white light. The screen went blank and we rose to leave.
A pungent stench permeated the theater. The screen at the front of the room displayed a bright light with a blue tinge to it. A dull groaning noise mixed with the steady hum of the theater projector. The run-time of the movie had stated two hours, but it had been much longer than that. The movie actually never started, but there was a flashing of lights for the first couple of months. The eyes in the audience were glazed over with a film with a distant look. The skin rotted off bones and fell on the ground. It went splat.
Concessions are available in the lobby.
Mindless drones sucked into the whirling vacuum of “entertainment.” Distraction. Negligence. Hypnosis. That screen is not selling you the experience of a space odyssey but buying jurisdiction over your thoughts and free will. It follows you home, snakes up your back, whispers in your ear. Come back soon. Turn off your mind. Distract yourself from reality. All the while, those who govern this ignorance are profiting. A culture founded on the insecurity of consumers. Intolerable, yet unobstructed bills. Violent attacks carried out by our own military. The slaughter of innocent people.
Enjoy the show.
The screen was blank but glowing. There was a murmur throughout the crowd. No one knew why we were here but we all managed to be clustered together in this small, somewhat futuristic, somewhat industrial space. The seats were comfortable, but the atmosphere in the room was not. We were tense. The glowing from the screen seemed to move in a way that mimicked static from a TV, except there was no static. An electric hum could be heard. It was getting louder. The screen was glowing brighter. People stopped talking. Fear radiated throughout the room. Suddenly, a woman screamed.
Outside, the title The Little Things in Life glowed on the marque. To each other they were strangers before the movie started. Their everyday lives played out on the screen, each performing a kindness for another whom they had never known and had soon forgotten, until now. Simple acts as holding open a door, picking up spilled groceries, shoveling an elderly neighbor’s sidewalk. At first, awkwardness, then recognition as they said hello to each other for a second time. The screen brightened; the second scene was about to begin, a new story.
The title on the marque flickered and faded.
We sat there waiting to hear from the warden. “You must watch the entire film. All of you must learn from what you did,” she ordered. We were strapped to our chairs and our eyes were forced open by headsets that bit at our skin. The film began and the screams were already beginning. Fingers dug into armrests, beads of sweat rolled down faces, expressions of sorrow poured from mouths. They thought we were guiltless, but that wasn’t true. We knew what we did. We knew that we were guilty, we just weren’t ashamed. We just wanted to be free.
Oh Thank God.
The last slide disappeared from view and the white screen illuminated the theater. Art history class was officially over for the day. Behind me I hear snoring.
I hate this class. It’s not the subject matter that I despise but the method of delivery. Spending four hours a week in a darkened auditorium staring at pictures is not fun. Our professor has a voice that could make colicky babies slumber. This course has made most of us never want to look at art again. I am clinging to my love of art…I used to love art museums.
My ass hurt from the chair, and even with the many shifts I made I still just ached in pain. A movie sounded nice, it was always our thing after all. Despite every seat being filled, I could still hear his chest rise and fall with each breath he took. He kept side-eyeing with every switching position I made. Smiling about how nervous I was all those years ago when he reached for my hand for the first time. Extending my arm, I grabbed his hand giving it a light squeeze, and he squeezed back because he’s still here.
A dozen butterflies lifted, like scattered wildflowers, from the drawer of his immaculate dresser. My abiding memory from several heavy days of clearing out. All but one alighted on Mama’s mohair sweater, basking in that familiar lavender scent. Her voice cracked as she whispered his name. Once I reached double digits, she facilitated my education in the universal laws over bitter coffee and sugary pastries. So I am already squeezed along the aisle and descending to the foyer as my bag starts vibrating. A glimpse though the curtain that separates us from the other side means they are finally reunited.
THE MOMENT HE KISSED ME
I thought of these things: The way my leg was cramping because of how I was turned in my seat. The material of my shirt that scratched at my neck. How my arms had goosebumps from the A/C. The big screen in front of us and how that movie wasn’t a kissing movie. How my boss said I looked sexy. The fact that the homeless shelter was in the part of town that had ten empty houses. The weather. I thought of anything but the feeling of his pointed tongue exploring the crevices behind my teeth, searching for popcorn kernels.
Halfway through the movie. Two thirds through the tub of popcorn.
There, in the dark, eyes fixed forward on the flashing images, but ignoring the story, their buttery fingers searching and coming together. Over the well-worn armrest. Over initial uncertainty, this unfamiliar longing for communion.
The film finished. Credits rolled. The patrons file out, except for the reluctant recently coupled. The house lights come up. What existed, could only exist, in the darkness, was now exposed. They pull away, repulsed. And then, embarrassed, their eyes meet. Matching shy smiles.
The usher starts sweeping the aisles, the broom brushing their feet.
Waiting for the movie to begin, I pondered how this date would end–this last date with my boyfriend. No more enduring, pretending everything was okay, that I trusted him. The last straw came during a double date, one I lacked the nerve to end suddenly with, “Take me home.” So I endured, pretended he didn’t devastate me with his casual criticism of me to the other couple. Tears cascading, I looked out the window that night, searching for a way to hide my tears, bury my devastation before anyone saw. That was the real end for me. His is tonight. How to begin?
Life in Movies
We liked to mash up the entire box of Junior Mints into one big ball. Make it into the Death Star and eat it like Jedi Knights. We tied Red Vines together till we could climb out of our lives and into the white light of heaven. Our shoes stuck to the floor like fly paper; the buzz of people waiting for the lights to dim. Would hide in the bathroom so we could watch again. Stale scent of history burned at the edges of our existence. Memory of car chases and falling in love. We always wanted a refill.
Well, that was very odd. Before the film, an address to the people by The Leader (Praise Be!). I’ve never seen him so intense, so incensed. Talking of the recent uprisings. How they need to be stamped out, by any means available. How the harbouring of rebels is now a capital crime. How it’s been difficult to weed the rebels out. How they could be sitting next to us. Then that sound – what was it like? Fingernails on a blackboard? A spoon in a saucepan? And now the blank screen. And … hang on! Everyone … in a … trance.
And I could see countless stars in her breath as she made her wish. Like sunlight dancing at the bottom of a well illuminating a million shiny coins. The years gazing back with their blank faced expressions. Their surface barely raising an eyebrow. Lost. Forgotten. Polished over with the smooth desire that clung to their surface like simple ghosts. Some mechanical hope. All the people that had stared into the abyss hoping to find that relative of the heart swimming in oily light.
She tossed her coin and let it join the others. It rested next to a bottle cap.
Reflecting within a Ricochet
I swear I seen it. As obsidian as it reflect in dark ricochet; I seen it. There is nothing out there. It had to be.. turned over filters, movement, glistening slivers, and the general arrangement along the metallic nodes in sideways moistening shifts… It wants to be seen – before there even is any. After eyes finally imagined, I wondered if we were adapting fast enough as we passed through it. Actually thinking of this ahead of the story; so I won’t forget the part which captures it; with intense squints, still, more aware of it than we normally see.
The screen flickered with a thousand fireflies, each one a 100 watt crumb of the sun. The audience squirmed in their seats as the light pierced their eyelids, scorching their eyes like the seeds from which dreams grow.
‘Oh God, my eyes! I can’t see!,’ she said, and for the first time I appreciated the beauty of her voice sifting through the panic. I could read her like she was the braille. There we were, blind people staring at the screen. Up until then, we were all blind anyway.
‘I can finally see you without eyes and you’re damn beautiful.’
It should only be braille, not “the braille”.
I squirmed in my seat like a two year old. I just didn’t get it. The marque had advertised a new, revolutionary movie experience. So, being the freethinking, adventurous type, I was delighted to separate myself from twenty dollars and head into the theater.
Once the audience was in place, the screen was illuminated and the music began. Then we were all told to use our imaginations to create our own individual movies.
Most of the audience appeared to be far too cool to let on that they had been hoodwinked while I just kept wriggling and wishing for popcorn.
1977 PREMIER OF “CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND:” Unsure whether it is just another overexposed backlit scene, or perhaps an unfortunate malfunction of the film projector, audience members are indecisive. Is it a good time for a bathroom break? Or, will the face of the aliens finally be revealed? Damn! That Steven Spielberg really is a master of suspense!
The cinema had the filthiest floors he’d ever seen. Sedimentary layers of dust and grime encrusted the vintage tiles, their stark, geometric patterns of optical illusions muted. Ever unobservant, I hadn’t noticed them myself, but I saw what he meant afterwards.
Yet the sight of the tiles didn’t disturb me so much as the thought of the dingy cinema and the piles of cushions we’d reclined upon: the unseen stains of spilled beer, mildew, and cum; the cockroaches crawling in the crevices, like the big brute that scurried into my shorts while the audience remained transfixed in the darkness.
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