A Story in a Picture

I decided to take a break from memoir writing to focus on fiction for a bit. I was inspired by Mike Staton’s post on Writing Wranglers and Warriors at https://writingwranglersandwarriors.wordpress.com/2015/01/06/finding-short-stories-among-intriguing-paintings-and-photos/ . He talks about finding stories in artwork and photography. Being visually impaired, I find this tricky, but I once wrote a short story inspired by a photo I heard described.

Several years ago, I participated in NPR’s 3-minute fiction challenge in which listeners were encouraged to write a story based on a picture of someone looking through a window at a newspaper lying on a table upside down. The story could be no more than 600 words because it needed to be read in three minutes or less. Unfortunately, my tale metastasized into something larger, and I couldn’t find a way to cut it down to 600 words so I never submitted it to NPR. However, since my blog has no word count limitation, I’ll post it here for your enjoyment. It will eventually be included in a collection of short stories when I get around to publishing it.

AMBER’S ALERT

My stomach growled, and my mouth watered, as I looked in the café window. It had been a long time since I’d eaten anything but breakfast cereal, crackers with peanut butter, and canned soup. I wished I’d looked in Mom’s purse to see if she had any cash before I left the house.

I saw a newspaper on a nearby table. I couldn’t read the print because the paper lay upside down, but I recognized my school picture from last year. I walked into the café and up to the table and picked up the newspaper. The headline jumped out. “$50,000 Reward Offered for Return of Missing Girl” That was me.

I sat at the table and read the article. It was all about how I’d been kidnapped by my mother a month ago. Dad was out of town, and Mrs. Miller, the housekeeper, thought I was spending the night with my best friend and didn’t report me missing until the next day when I didn’t come home.

When Mom left last year, she didn’t even say goodbye to me or Dad. She just left in the night, pinning a note on the refrigerator for Mrs. Miller to find the next morning. Mom was an artist, and she told me she was forced to marry Dad because he got her pregnant with me.

I spent a lot of time in her studio, watching her paint. Mom gave me an easel and paints for my twelfth birthday, and she gave me a few lessons. After that, we worked together at our own easels.

Dad was away most of the time. He worked in a bank just like the dad in Mary Poppins. The day I turned thirteen, Mom was gone.

I kept painting. It made me feel closer to Mom, being in her studio. She didn’t take much when she left, and I had a feeling that someday, she would come back, and everything would be okay.

A few weeks later, Dad said he thought Mom was dead and gave all her clothes to charity and sold her jewelry. I begged him to leave the studio alone. He did, but when I asked if we could sell some of Mom’s paintings, he said, “That rubbish isn’t worth the canvas it’s painted on.”

I didn’t dare offer to show him my paintings, and he didn’t ask to see them. I signed up for an art class at school, and my paintings were displayed on the classroom walls during open house. Dad never went to open house.

A year later, Mom showed up at school in a maroon Cadillac. She wore a pink linen suit and a lot of make-up. Her hair was dyed a dark brown. I almost didn’t recognize her until she said, “Amber darling, there you are.”

I thought this was weird, but I told my best friend Susan I couldn’t spend the night and got in the car.

“Mom, I’m glad you’re back,” I said, as she pulled away from the curb. “I’ve missed you so much.”

“I know, honey. I’ve missed you, too. You were the best thing that ever happened to me. Now, we’ll always be together.”

“Where are we going?” I asked a few minutes later when it didn’t look like we were driving home.

“We’re going to take a little trip,” said Mom, patting my knee. This was also weird, but I would have gone anywhere with her, even to the moon.

She pulled into a McDonald’s outside of town, and my mouth watered at the thought of some French fries or a milk shake. But instead of going inside or to the drive-through window, she drove to the front door, and a man came out wearing black slacks and a white t-shirt with a black blazer over it. He didn’t look happy and climbed into the back passenger seat saying, “You sure took your sweet time.”

“Chuck, this is my daughter Amber,” said Mom. “Amber, this is Chuck. Are we ready?” The man grunted.

This wasn’t right, I thought, as we drove out of the parking lot, but what could I say? We drove for miles and miles and miles. Chuck said nothing while Mom and I talked. When I asked Mom why she left and where she went, she ruffled my hair and said, “Don’t worry your pretty head about that, sweetie. The important thing is we’re together, and I’ll never leave you again.”

She asked about me, and I told her about the art class I signed up for at school, about how the teacher put some of my paintings on the classroom wall for all the parents to see during open house. “Someday, you’ll have to show me those paintings,” she said. I wondered what she meant by someday. Weren’t we ever going home? It didn’t look like it.

When we finally stopped to eat at some sleazy diner, Chuck kept giving me weird looks across the table. He also kept putting his arm around Mom’s shoulders. I didn’t like this. If anybody should have been doing that, it was Dad. Mom didn’t seem to mind. In fact, she loved it.

When we got back in the car, Mom told me to sit in the back seat so Chuck could drive, and she could sit up front with him. I didn’t like the look of his back, either. He kept taking one hand off the wheel and putting an arm around Mom’s shoulders. It made me want to throw up. I finally fell asleep and woke up hours later in front of a run-down house in a strange town.

“This will be our new home,” said Mom. I got out of the car and walked with her to the house. Chuck drove off before we even got in the door which was fine with me.

The house had a small kitchen dining area combination, a large living room, and two small bedrooms: one for Mom and one for me. An easel was in the living room next to a window. There was no other furniture in the room.

Mom had several outfits of clothing for me. They weren’t as nice as the clothes I usually wore, but she said, “Someday when I have more money, I’ll be able to buy you better clothes, and we’ll be able to move to a bigger house in a better neighborhood where I can have a room I can use just for my studio.”

When I asked about school, she said, “I didn’t get past the eighth grade, and look where it got me.” She pointed at one of her paintings on the living room wall. “Besides, it’s April. The term’s nearly over. Maybe by next fall, I’ll have enough money to send you to an art school.”

I was relieved not to have to start school right away in a strange town where I didn’t know anyone. Mom told me not to leave the house, even during the day. “There are creeps in this neighborhood. Don’t open the door to anyone. If someone comes to the door, go to your room and stay there until you’re sure they’re gone. You just never know what could happen to you, honey,” she said, hugging me.

We never went out to eat. There was no telephone, computer, television, not even a radio. Unlike Dad, Mom never read newspapers. She promised we could have this stuff when we got more money.

Chuck helped Mom put an old bookshelf containing used books in my room, and they were even able to squeeze in a beat-up old armchair and lamp. Mom painted in the living room. She said she didn’t want me to watch her anymore because it distracted her. In fact, she wouldn’t let me come out into the living room until after dark when the blinds were pulled.

I liked to read. Although the chair was uncomfortable, I didn’t mind sitting there for hours reading the Judy Bloom books Mom gave me. I missed Susan and my other friends and even Dad, although he was away a lot and didn’t want to have anything to do with me when he was home. I also missed painting and wondered why Mom didn’t get my easel and paints before we left home.

The only person who came to the door was Chuck, and I was glad to stay in my room while he was there. I didn’t like the way he kept looking at me. Luckily, my bedroom door had a lock that worked. Mom and Chuck drank. He often spent the night, and I heard sounds that I rarely herd from my folks’ bedroom at home. I buried my face in the torn covers of the old bed and tried to tune them out.

One sunny day in May, I couldn’t stand being in the house any longer. While Mom was in her room with a hangover, I quietly closed the front door and started walking. I memorized the house number and street name in case I got lost. Now, here I was, sitting in a café downtown, reading a newspaper article about me.

I felt a light tap on my shoulder and looked up to see a waitress with gray hair, smiling and holding out a menu. She looked old enough to be my grandmother. I smiled back and pointed at my picture and said, “How would you like fifty thousand dollars?”

She stared at the photo and then at me, and her mouth opened wide. The café door opened, and in walked Chuck. I shrank in my seat, hoping he didn’t see me, but he rushed straight to my table. “Amber, what the hell are you doing here?”

The waitress turned to the old man behind the counter who was grilling chicken. “Mel, call 911. That gal who went missing with the fifty thousand dollar reward is here, and the guy who kidnapped her is about to grab her again. Hurry!”

Chuck turned and ran. I felt weak. The waitress put her arm around me and said, “Don’t worry, honey. We won’t let him get you again. You’re safe now.”

Mel hollered from the grill. “Sally, tell that gal to order anything she wants on the house, and if that jerk comes back, I’ll butcher him, fry him extra crispy, and serve him with coleslaw.” He held up a knife. Other people laughed, and I couldn’t help giggling.

I didn’t even look at the menu. I ordered a hamburger, French fries, and a milk shake. It was the best meal I had in a long time. Other customers went to the counter and offered to pay for my meal, but Mel waved them away with his knife.             When the cops showed up, I gave them Mom’s address and told them what Chuck’s car looked like. They found Mom at the house right away and soon caught up with Chuck who was speeding down the highway, heading out of town. Mom and Chuck were wanted for crimes in other towns so they ended up doing a lot of jail time.

When I flew home, it was Dad who picked me up at the airport, not his chauffeur. What a surprise that was. He hugged me hard and said, “Oh Amber, you don’t know what you have until it’s gone. I didn’t think I’d ever see you again, princess.” He hadn’t called me princess or anything else in a long time. For the first time in quite a while, I cried on his shoulder and smelled his aftershave. It was so good to be home.

Dad took everything out of Mom’s studio, even my easel and paints, but frankly, I didn’t care. “This is your studio now, honey,” he said.

I picked out new wallpaper and carpeting. He bought me a couch, an entertainment center with a television, stereo, and big speakers, a corner desk, and a computer with everything I needed. He even got me my own phone with a private line plus a cell phone. My friends said I was lucky to have the best dad in the world, and they were right.

Dad was usually home by supper time, and I ate with him in the dining room instead of in the kitchen with Mrs. Miller. On weekends, he took me out to fancy restaurants. When the weather was warm, he often played golf at the club, and I went with him and swam in the pool and hung out with my friends. Before school started, he took me to an expensive clothing store and asked a sales lady to pick outfits she thought were appropriate.

Six months later, I looked at the story I wrote down for a creative writing class I elected to take at school instead of art, wondering how it should end. I never heard from Mom. Of course people who were arrested could only make one phone call, and she couldn’t have called me because I didn’t have a cell phone. She could have written a letter, but what could she have said?

“Amber darling, I’m having such a lovely time at Club Fed. Let’s do lunch sometime.” I snorted at the thought.

Then I thought of Mel and Sally at the cafe. Mel would have gotten the reward since he was the one who called the cops. Of course he would have split it with Sally. They were probably already married. They could have done a lot with fifty thousand dollars.

Abbie Johnson Taylor, Author of We Shall Overcome, How to Build a Better Mousetrap: Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver, and That’s Life: New and Selected Poems

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