Part of the ‘Stranger Stories’ series
Disclaimer: The photos used in my Stranger Stories series are taken from charity shops, yard sales etc. I don’t know the real identities of the people in the photos, and all stories are entirely fictional. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or events, is purely coincidental. The photos are a tool to brainstorm new characters and experiment with style.
Scroll down to the bottom for Author’s notes.
The moment she opened the front door, the shadowy figure grabbed at her. He rushed forward so quickly that he could have caught her heart in his hands as it leapt up her throat and out her mouth. But as she felt his hands on her, and smelled his cologne, she swallowed the feeling of fear. She recognised him.
His scent, dark like mahogany wood, overpowered the stale, damp odour that had always inexplicably been a comforting theme in her childhood home.
Her father gripped the tops of her arms tightly and smiled widely. She could feel his thick fingers curling into the fleshy part of her arm and she would have cried out, but could see from his excitement that he wasn’t squeezing hard on purpose. His white shirt sleeves were rolled up, the dark hairs covering his arm from wrist to elbow a stark contrast, and his eyes were slightly wider than made her comfortable. Small hairs peppered his chin.
The smell of cologne was thick at his neck and underarms, where his shirt had dampened over the course of the day. He twisted his mouth playfully, pretending to search her face for something.
“Ahhhhh, you thought I’d forgotten!” he said, still gripping, half-laughing. He almost raised her off the ground with his enthusiasm. “Not remembering the big 1-5 birthday – what kind of stupid man do you think I am, darlin’?”
She hoped that her face didn’t give away what she already knew.
But he had forgotten. Not a single glance up from the newspaper this morning as I left. Which was usual routine for us. But still, I was swallowing tears all the way to school.
She dropped her gaze from his reddened complexion, over his right shoulder to the kitchen, and saw an opened card on the counter. So, mother sent me a birthday card, and you opened it.
Without a pause, without an answer, he carried on. “Well, lucky Isabelle, little girl – wait until you see what I’ve got for you!”
“Dad, I’m not a little girl -”
“Of course not, of course not. Well into your teens now! You’ll be able to drive soon.”
“In two years…”
“Is it?” He seemed distracted, playing their conversation as a background track underneath something else he was thinking.
He moved around behind her, squeezing his bulk past in the narrow hallway and moving his hands from her arms to her shoulders. She could still feel the choking cloud of his cologne around her and wanted more than anything to move out of that spot. The hallway stretched out in front of her – along the cream wallpaper, out to the cheap wooden sliding doors that opened onto the conservatory. She could see from here that the glass was clean, up until the point that she could reach, and then darker and dirtier above. If there was a sky out back, she hadn’t seen it from inside her house for many years.
“In here, in here…” he pushed her forward, steering her to the right and into the living room. “Sit.”
One of the large, dining room chairs was lined up against the middle of an empty wall. Just this morning when she’d left the house, there had been two sofas in that spot, a small coffee table, a lamp. All arranged around the small television set – just enough space for all four of them to sit and watch the news in the evening, when her mother was home.
The furniture had all been taken and stacked at the other side of the room by the window. Steven, her younger brother, was already sat on a stool low to the ground, his barely-decade-old knees drawn up to his hips and a book open in his lap. He was still in his school uniform and was pulling on his socks, trying to draw them as high up his calf as possible. The material made a clicking sound as the ribs pulled apart.
Has he been sat there since three o’clock when he got home? Surely not. It was almost five now.
Confused, she sat. The teflon-coated cushion squeaked and she heard a hiss of air. It had been a while since the family had sat at the dinner table together and the chairs had become accustomed to no-one sitting on them.
“Did you eat?” she turned to Steven, as their father rushed back out of the room and out the front door to the car. She heard the back door open, and then slam. She hadn’t even noticed the car in the driveway when she walked up to the house. She’d been thinking of how to break the news of her birthday to her father without making him feel too bad. This whole situation had spun her off guard.
“Dad’s got you something for your birthday,” he said, tipping the book and flicking through the pages with his thumb, wafting the sweet, musky smell of the old pages into the air. “He won’t tell me what it is.”
“Have you been sitting in here since you got home from school?”
Steven didn’t have a chance to answer. The door slammed and her father came striding back in, a cardboard box in one hand, and a camera in the other.
He laid the camera down on the floor and, with ceremony, presented her with the plain box. She looked at it uneasily, remembering previous years where she’d been given bags of makeup and clothes for her birthday. He’d usually forget his wife’s instructions if she were away, and always resorted to the most stereotypical presents for a teenage girl – not realising, of course, that she wasn’t that kind of girl at all. He would know, if he talked to her at all besides asking her where they kept things.
She could just imagine him – picking a store, any store. Looking to buy anything labelled ‘For Girls’. Over the years she’d had all the standard ‘girl’ gifts – bath salts (even though they didn’t have a bath), ribbons for her hair, shoes (in the wrong size, so she had to wear inserts), and occasionally jewellery (fake and garish).
Isabelle crossed her legs, realising how much her thick tights were itching and wishing she’d been given a chance to change. Her arms stayed crossed across her lap.
“Take it,” her father said, almost dropping it in his eagerness to hand it over. “Come on!”
She held out her hands, watching out of the corner of her eye as Steven raised his head, peering over the top of the cardboard. He traced his fingers over the box and she noticed puncture holes.
No, please. Don’t let him have got me another thing to take care of in this house. Please.
There was a scurrying coming from inside. A scratching that she could feel as well as hear. She could tell by the way her father lowered the box into her hands, that he was needing to counterbalance something which was throwing itself from one side of the box to the other.
Let it be a ball. Maybe the stores have started selling Magic 8-Balls just for girls. A big pink one. Maybe that’s what’s causing the bunching of weight as it moves and stops, moves and stops.
She saw herself picking it up, turning it over and asking with pressed lips: “Will I ever get out of this place?” And the Magic 8-Ball would say: “Concentrate and ask again” because of course, of course this toy wouldn’t be on her side either.
She shook her head in fear, not wanting to open the lid. With now empty hands, her father wiped his sweaty palms on his trousers and for a moment she thought she saw tiny things clinging to the black material – a scuff, some powder, a long blonde hair which wasn’t from the dark heads of any of her family and shimmered on his cuff.
“Come on, it won’t bite,” he teased. He gestured at the box, and then again. Steven was still clutching the book, but his eyes were wide. He had lowered his head close to the box to listen, his pink ears just scraping the flimsy lid.
“It’s a mouse,” he guessed. “A rabbit’s too big, unless it’s a baby rabbit. A bird? Daddy, is it a bird?”
“It’s Isabelle’s birthday, she’s the one who has to open it. Don’t spoil the surprise.”
The early evening traffic outside had now completely died down, and so there was complete silence when conversation stopped. Her father put one hand on his hip, pulling his tie away from his collar with the other. He cleared his throat.
“Isabelle,” he said, “open the goddamn box, otherwise you’re going to suffocate it.”
Don’t make me. I don’t want it. I want an animal on a plate, bright red, dead and slapped with sauce for my birthday. Not another thing to remember to feed.
Angered, he leaned in. She could detect another smell on him now, beneath the cologne. Perfume. Woman’s perfume. It lay like a silk blanket under the scent of his cologne – barely detectable, thin and floral.
All at once she understood. She was young, but was already weary with the secrets she knew about her parents marriage, and here was another one. Delivered with a birthday present, and only to her. Steven would continue on, oblivious to the change, but she – she would always know now.
Her mind continued to roll, concluding that this woman had probably been in their house today. That maybe she had been the one to open the letter. That maybe her father’s distraction this morning – or every morning – had been her imminent arrival. Maybe she’d even suggested this pet, instead of Isabelle’s normal birthday haul. It hadn’t been for long that Isabelle’s mother would be gone, this time – how could he?
Her thoughts were broken by the feeling of tiny pads and sharp claws, pressing into her palms. She looked down and saw the present.
The back of a wiry, black guinea pig. The body, small but solid, quivered against her pleated skirt and started a hallelujah chorus of squeaking, ecstatic to be out of the box. Its paper-thin ears were folded against the side of its long face, and as it moved she realised with a startle how quick it was. She put her hands around it, for fear it would jump from her lap to the floor, scurry away and she would be hearing it forever in the walls.
“It’s ugly,” Steven said. “I thought it would be cuter. “ He turned to his father, who moved backwards and bent down to the floor to retrieve the camera. “You should have got a mouse.”
“You best be nice to it, or it might just come into your room and night and nibble on your nose,” her father said, straightening. There was a pause and he re-thought his answer. “You’d be grateful to get anything at all. They’re not cheap, these things. Isabelle, what do you think?”
“It’s very noisy,” she said. Maybe if she just stated a fact, she wouldn’t find it so difficult to answer.
He popped the cap off the camera. His voice sounded tight, as if his jaw was setting around the words. “So you don’t want it?”
She didn’t answer at first. It continued to squeal and whistle. “I want to go and change out of my uniform.”
“Not yet,” he said. “I’m going to take a photo of you both together, and we’re going to send it to your mother to show her what a good birthday you’ve had.”
Steven gingerly tried to stroke the animal, but shrieked and pulled his hand back when its whiskers snuffled over his fingers. “I don’t want it,” he said.
His father ignored him.
“Both of you. Look at me.” He raised the camera to his face and Isabelle wondered if there were any photos of his father and this lady together. She wondered what she looked like, and whether she had any children, or was married, too.
“Look happy, it’s your birthday! Come on,” he said, “do it for your mum. Smile, Isabelle! Smile!”
And so, she smiled, trying to ignore the squeaking animal that twisted violently in her hands, desperate to get away.
It took me a loooooong time and multiple mini-brainstorms to come up with this particular story. For some reason the picture itself stumped me, partly because I couldn’t work out for about 3 days what the FECK she was holding on her lap.
I mean, what is this??
A small black hat? A jumble of clothes? An animal?? Girl, get you those extra pixels for the love of God.
I assumed previously that she was holding a black hat or other piece of clothing, so that’s what I wanted to focus on, maybe starting with the scratchy-ness of her outfit – which seemed almost like a school uniform with the pleated skirt and the bow in her hair. But I hit a bunch of dead-ends trying to imagine any school-related stories. This photo was taken at home (or a synagogue?) and so bringing it back to school felt forced.
She also doesn’t look happy behind the eyes. Like she didn’t have a choice in sitting down to take the photo. Her legs are crossed like someone a little older than she is, so I felt like her character possibly had an element of maturity beyond her years. In essence though, she looks like a “good girl”. As soon as I realised she’s holding a black guinea pig (I suppose I could have written a story where it died and they’re taking a weird post-mortem photograph – oh cock it, that could have been quite good), it became obvious that the point of the story should be this pet and what it symbolises. Why she doesn’t look happy to have it, and why they’re set up in such an odd scenario.
So I started with the concept that she was holding a guinea pig, and worked towards that. The beginning changed multiple times, so in the end I started actually writing at the point that he invites her to sit down (so I could be sure that the presentation of the animal would actually work) and get a good feeling of that interaction. By the time I’d finished that, I realised that the automatic ways in which I had assumed to take the story – perhaps he was more aggressive, violent even, perhaps Steven was completely afraid of him, rather than simply tired as Isabelle was – didn’t fit with the dad’s character.
I was inspired in no small way by the fantastic ‘Let’s pretend this never happened’ by Jenny Lawson; a collection of little memoir pieces that include her father coming home with no end of strange presents, including stuffed animals and live animals.
It took about 6 hours in all to write and edit this story. I’m pretty happy with the concept, but the writing could have been better. Some elements are a bit repetitive, and the dialogue isn’t up to scratch. But it ain’t my worst. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what I was going for. Not my worst.
What would you have written?
Let me know in the comments and we can have a jolly old time discussing:
1. Whether I guessed the black fluff-ball of doom correctly
2. What other kinds of stories are hidden in this photo
3. What you liked about this story, and what I need to work on?