35 comments

Nov 09, 2020

Romance Suspense

72% of couples breakup in the first year. That's what my best mate Freddy told me when I was picked to be on that godforsaken show. I looked it up. He was right. So I kept my expectations low. But when I brought Zoey home, he’d patted me on the back. “Well done mate,” he had said, “she’s perfect. She’ll be a GREAT mom to Jamey.”


Perfect? I let out an audible scoff. Yeah, right.


A buzz in my pocket catches my attention. Pulling out my phone, my stomach tightens as I see her name glow across the screen. The first time she’s messaged me in three months.


**Zoey Gardner – 1 Unread Message**


Taking a deep breath, I look out the limo's long windows as we zip by traffic on the L.A. highway.


Get ahold of yourself Jason. Exhaling slowly, I swipe.


**I’m here. They’re asking me where you are.**


Shit. I'm late.


“Excuse me, driver? How close are we to the studio?”


“Ten minutes, sir. This is our exit.”


I shoot back a response.


**10 minutes**


**You’re late, Jason. Just make sure you have the ring.**


Groaning, I slide my phone back in my pocket.


Pulling off the interstate, I spot the top of the studio in the distance. My insides turn to snakes as they slither over one another, tying themselves into knots. The last thing I want to do is sit in front of a live audience pretending to be madly in love with my ex-girlfriend.


Zoey and I made it 8 months before she suddenly decided she wanted out. One night, for seemingly no reason, she said it just wasn’t going to work.


The next morning I found her ring on the counter.


It was horrifyingly painful. I had to have my sister pick up my 4-year-old daughter Jamey. It had taken days for me to leave my bed, and almost two weeks after that for me to leave my house. After Jamey, Zoey was everything to me.


Thinking about having to see her in person makes me feel very, very small.


“We’re coming up on the studio now, sir. We’ll be there in a few moments.”


A lump forms in the back of my throat. The seedling of a pounding headache sprouts in my temples. Approaching the complex, the driver pulls past throes of fans screaming and crying at the entrance of the studio. It makes me cringe.


We’re stopped briefly at the guard shack before being let through and directed toward an entrance near the back of the studio, away from the fans and cameras. It’s quiet. Dark.


“Here we are, sir. Give me a moment; I’ll open your door.”


“No need, I’ll be fine, thanks.”


As he pulls away, I’m left in front of the massive entrance covered with a big “3C” in yellow paint. I want to run. There’s no way I can do this. I can’t see Zoey. Not right now.


A stage hand peeks out from inside. Her headset askew, her all-black clothing stained by some sort of white powder - she’s clearly having a rough night.


“Jason Carenzo? Oh thank God, we’ve been waiting for you. We go live in 34 minutes!”


She grabs me firmly by the arm, guiding me through the studio and hissing into her headset.


“Yeah Chuck I’ve got him - calm down. Me? Rebecca. No, Rebecca. Oh for God's sake Chuck, I've worked here for seven years. I'm the first assistant - Rebecca? Okay, forget it. It doesn't matter. He’s here. I’m taking him to hair and makeup now. No, we can’t skip – he needs it. He’s a mess.”


Rude, I thought to myself. But she’s probably right. Winding through the dark and bustling corridors, various stage personnel run to and fro, adjusting the cords that creep up the walls like wild ivy and sprawl across the ground like tree roots. The air is thick with hairspray and sweat. Almost everyone has a headset, clipboard, and matching exasperated scowls.


Rebecca hands me off to an older lady. “Come find me ASAP when you’re done. Myrna? You have 15 minutes. Work your magic.”


“Oh darling,” she croons, “I’m working with a beautiful canvas here, I only need 10.”


Rebecca rolls her eyes and heads back into the frenzied backstage jungle. Myrna slowly looks me up and down, her spectacles perched on the tip of her nose, and her wrinkly face covered with age spots.


“Alright love. Let’s get you ready, shall we?”


Following her into a trailer, I sit before a large, lit mirror and let her get to work. She styles my hair using an assortment of gels and sprays, before starting on my face. We’re almost done when I feel another buzz.


**I’m stage left with Rebecca. We need you here in 5.**


“Uh, Myrna? I think my time’s up.”


“No problem darling, you’re ready.”


Heading towards stage left, my breathing grows louder as I know I’m getting closer to Zoey. God, she makes me so angry, and yet I can’t seem to ever get her off my mind. Weaving through the camera stands and set pieces, I finally spot her. My heart stops.


She’s…beautiful.


Her long hair – sleek and softly curled – is pinned back on one side exposing her bare neck. Her collar bones are prominently accentuated by her off-the-shoulder sapphire dress that catches the light. But there’s something different about her that catches my attention. Something I can't quite name. She looks a bit pale, and she’s lost weight. Myrna seems to have gone a bit heavy on the makeup and fake lashes. But Zoey has always been beautiful, makeup or no makeup.


Clearing my throat, I adjust the tie around my neck - had it gotten tighter? Taking a moment to remember how to breathe, I glance at her once more from a distance, my heart threatening to burst from my chest, while at the same time my temper flares. Why am I so angry?


Calm down, Jason. There’s $100K on the line tonight.


Taking a deep breath, I move to meet her and Rebecca.


“Ladies,” I say quietly.


“About time,” whispers Zoey, daggers in her eyes as she stares at me, taking me in head to toe. “Myrna does good work.”


Caught off guard by her compliment, I feel heat rising in my cheeks, and find my mouth suddenly dry, making it difficult to spit out a response.


“Uhhh, no. I mean, yeah. Thanks.”


Zoey rolls her eyes. “Do you have it?”


“Have what?” I ask, confused.


“The ring, Jason. We’re engaged, remember?” I pull the ring from my pocket and she slides it on her finger. It’s loose and threatens to fall off. “We’re contractually obligated to be doing this, Jason,” Zoey says, avoiding my eyeline. “Regardless of what happens tonight, I’m going home when this is over. Ideally, I’m going home with $50,000, but regardless, I’m going home.”


An angry spark of rage flashes in my stomach as each word cuts into my flesh, burning like a brand on my chest. At one time, “home” had meant the house the three of us shared. It breaks my heart all over again.


Zoey and I wait in painful silence as the other TV couples from the season start showing up. One by one they all headed to separate lanes. Most, if not all, look happy. Maybe Zoey and I really are the only ones who didn’t work out.


72%, Jason. Remember the odds. There’s no way they’re all happy.


Suddenly, the house lights dim, and music begins playing out over the audience. The host’s voice booms over the intercoms.


“Welcome to the live finale of Lover’s Trials, Season 15! I’m your host, Hugh Stillman. And I don’t know about you, but I am VERY excited to check back in with our lovely couples. As you all know, tonight you will be caught up on our contestants’ lives since the end of the show. You’ll get to ask them questions, and then YOU will vote on who takes home the grand prize. So, without further ado, let’s bring out the couples, starting with David and McKenna!”


The crowd roars as one by one, Hugh calls on the couples who take the stage, a spotlight following them each to their assigned seats across a plethora of couches and loveseats spread out strategically across the stage.


A cold sweat breaks out across my forehead as I anticipate our turn, when suddenly I feel a soft fabric pressed into the palm of my hand. Looking down, I see Zoey has slipped me a tissue.


“Don’t let your foundation get streaky.”


“What?”


“You sweat when you get nervous. Even though I can’t see you very well in this light, I’m assuming you’re nervous. But dab, don’t rub, or else it’ll take the makeup off.”


Following her instructions, I dab lightly at the beads of sweat forming on my forehead.


“Thanks,” I whisper, shoving the tissue into my pocket.


A few more couples are called, and I start shifting my weight anxiously from leg to leg, unable to stand still. Abruptly, I feel Zoey lace her fingers gently through mine.


“What are you –”


“Jason, you need to calm down. We’re about to go on international television. For the next hour, you need to work under the assumption that you and I are happy, engaged, and in love, okay?”


My heart is pounding in my chest so hard that my ribs are rattling around like beads in a glass jar. I nod, gripping her hand for support. It feels nice. It feels familiar.


“And next,” says the announcer, “please welcome Jason and Zoey!”


The crowd goes absolutely wild as I feel Zoey pulling me forward by our interlocked hands. I throw on a smile and follow her lead as my eyes squint under the harsh glare of the spotlight. Together, we wave at the faceless crowd and make our way to the red sofa stage right. I’m taken aback when Zoey sits and crosses her legs, angling her body towards mine and placing her hands intimately on my thigh, shooting tendrils of fire through my body. I find myself aching for more of her touch.


“Put your arm around me,” she whispers through her gritted, smiling teeth.


In a bit of a haze, and confused by my own reaction to her touch, I slide my arm around her waist, pulling her close, intoxicated by her perfume as rich notes of white lily and orange blossoms swirl around us.


The next hour passes painfully slowly, filled with clips from the season, video montages filmed during the first few months after the show, and questions from the audience. Zoey takes the lead on most, answering with grace and poise. At one point, she leans over, placing a light kiss on my cheek, further ushering me into my own clouded mind. I’m confused. Angry. How can she so easily fake it? I find myself becoming more and more frustrated by her convincing acts of compassion. I’m grateful as the host wraps up the evening.


“And now, ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to vote! For all of you watching at home – text the number on your screen. For those of you here with us tonight, take out the tablet in front of you and let us know who is going to take home $100,000!”


The lights dim as the studio hushes. Zoey’s grip tightens on my hand. But amid the tension, I can’t care less about the money. I just want to get her off me and go home. After several minutes, the lights come back on, and the music changes.


“All right, folks, we have our winner! The champions of Season 15 will be revealed when we come back!”


A collective boo from the audience makes me chuckle condescendingly. Of course they aren’t going to reveal the winner immediately. They need time to rig the vote in the way that gives the studio the best outcome. If the most popular couple wins, that won’t generate any social media buzz. I find myself chuckling at the naivety of the audience.


“All right pretty people,” calls out Rebecca from side stage, “we’ll have you exit the stage and follow us this way, please. Empty the stage! This way!”


“What’s going on?” asks Zoey.


“They’ll probably only have the winners stay. They’ll let the rest of us go.”


Zoey keeps ahold of my hand until we’re off stage. As soon as we’re clear from the audience, I tear my fingers from hers.


“Well, that was interesting,” she says, a hint of venom in her tone.


“Mhmm,” I mumble back.


“You weren’t very talkative during the Q&A.”


“Sorry.”


Of course I wasn’t very talkative, Zoey. How am I supposed to talk about how much I love you when you broke my heart?


“What do you think our odds are?”


“Who cares, Zoey.”


“I care, Jason! It’s $50K and you were completely dry out there. You didn’t even try to contribute to the fan questions!”


Frustrated, I turn away, unable to look at her any longer without my heart tearing into two.


“Jason, what’s your problem?”


“Leave it alone, Zoey.”


“No, Jason. Seriously, why are you acting like this?”


Furious, I turned back to her, anger and pain dripping from every syllable.


“You want to know why my heart wasn’t in it tonight Zoey? Because you broke it three months ago when you left with no explanation.”


Zoey stared back at me, stunned. She took a small step forward.


“Jason, I'm sorry. I never wanted to --"


“I loved you, Zoey! You were my world. You were my everything. You and I were endgame. You and I were going to beat the odds.”


Zoey had tears in her eyes, and her mascara was beginning to smudge around the edges.


"It wasn't going to work Jason - can't we be adults about this?"


“Adults? You want to know why I can’t be an adult about this Zoey?” I asked, my voice beginning to break. “Because I’m still in pieces, lying on the floor, right where you left me.”


Tears were streaming down both my face and hers.


“Jason, you don't understand. With Jamey, I just couldn’t--”


At the mention of my daughter, I feel my cheeks burn white hot. How dare she use my daughter as an excuse.


“Stop it, Zoey. You think I was out of it tonight. And maybe I was. But I was present enough to watch how well you faked it. If it was so easy for you to up and leave, then you must have been faking it the whole time. You never cared about me or Jamey.”


"Jason, that's not true!" she cried.


"I'm done, Zoey. Keep the ring, and the money if we win. I'm going home."


I turn and head for the exit.


“I’m sick, Jason!"


Zoey’s voice stops me dead in my tracks. Turning to face her, I'm frozen, confused as I watch her slowly reach up and pull handfuls of clips and bobbi pins from her hair.


“I’m so, so sorry,” she says in a broken voice as she slowly, gently pulls off the long, dark wig revealing a shaved head beneath.


Helpless, every ounce of anger that ever was, or ever had been, evaporates into mist, replaced by a heavy fragility.


“I never stopped loving you, Jason. And I think about Jamey every day.”


Numb, I feel my knees giving way and grab hold of a nearby set piece to steady myself. My head swirls and I like I'm about to vomit.


“Zoey...?"


Closing the gap between us, Zoey places a light hand on my face, caressing my cheek with her thumb.


“I was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer, Jason," she whispered, "I couldn’t put you through that. And I couldn’t put Jamey through that.”


She left to protect us?


Unable to stop myself, I grab Zoey and pull her into me, burying my face in her neck, letting my tears fall freely onto her shoulder.


“I’m so sorry Zo,” I sobbed, “I’m so sorry.”


Zoey wraps her arms around me and holds me tight, shushing my sobs and running her fingers through my hair. After a moment I pull away and take both of her hands, gazing into her eyes. She looks away, but I gently pull her chin back to look at me.


“Zo – you are my everything. You always have been. Please. Please come home. We’ll do this together.”


Zoey bites her trembling lip. I can see that she’s fighting herself.


“Zoey,” I plead, “when I proposed, I knew that meant one day we would walk into a church and say ‘for better and for worse, through sickness and in health, I do’. As far as I'm concerned, I made that vow the day I got down on one knee. I don’t need to have a priest witness it to make it official. Please. Come home.”


"Jason, this? The chemo? It's a long shot. If it doesn't work --"


"The odds might not look good, Zo. But every moment, every second, of a life with you, is worth it."


Zoey lets out a sob and collapses in my arms. My chest swells, and relief floods my body as I hold her. I wipe the last of the tears from her cheek as Rebecca approaches.


"Jason, Zoey - we need you stage left in 5 minutes."


I glance down at Zoey, who shoots me a confused glance.


"Why?" I ask.


"Why do you think?" Rebecca smiles, before running off.


Grinning at the gorgeous woman in my arms, I kiss the tip of her nose as she starts frantically pinning her wig back in place and dabbing the mascara around her eyes with a tissue. After a moment, she lets out a deep breath.


"I'm ready," she says.


I smile.


“We’re going to beat the odds, Zo.” 

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35 comments

Chelsea Minjarez
21:35 Nov 18, 2020

I really enjoyed this. I do agree that there did seem to be a lot of buildup to a quick climax and resolution, but it didn't necessarily take away from my enjoyment of the story; I just wished it was more fleshed out at the end. I get the feeling you could have easily surpassed the 3000 word limit with this couple and there story! The only other criticism I have is perhaps cut back on sentences beginning with "But." I just remember by English professors used to slam me for it as it fragments the sentence. It does represent a sort of stream-o...

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21:50 Nov 18, 2020

Thank you Chelsea! You are absolutely doing this correctly. First, I’m so grateful that you’ve taken the time to read through and leave such thoughtful, well-articulated feedback. I’m thrilled you enjoyed the story :) As for your critiques - I’m right there with you in terms of pacing. I would have loved more words to play with! And thank you for calling me out on the “but” statements - I tend to slip into that “stream of consciousness” style writing. I’ll continue to work on that!

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Greta Faignant
18:52 Nov 17, 2020

This was a very well done story. I love how you wrote it so that we too as an audience can feel the heartbreak. I really like your last line.

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19:07 Nov 17, 2020

Thank you so much Greta - the last line is one of my favorites.

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Kevin Broccoli
18:28 Nov 17, 2020

This was really heartbreaking. Beautiful work.

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19:06 Nov 17, 2020

Thanks Kevin! I appreciate you reading through!

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Lavinia Hughes
20:13 Nov 13, 2020

Excellent pacing and satisfying conclusion that explained Zoey's behavior. Also picked up on the cheesiness of Bachelor-type shows. I am not a fan of those shows, but I can see why people would put themselves out there for that kind of money. Well done.

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21:02 Nov 13, 2020

Thank you Lavinia! I so appreciate your feedback and the time you took to read :) Have a great day!

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Lina Ozz
05:14 Nov 10, 2020

KILLED IT with that last line. The double meaning is everything. I got chills. And the way you start the piece with the odds and end it with the odd of a completely different but tangential issue of her beating cancer...gah. I'm seriously obsessed and this story is just beautiful. Tiniest adjustments: "Here we are sir. Give me a moment I’ll open your door.” --Missing some lil punctuation buddies: "Here we are, sir. Give me a moment; I’ll open your door.” “Jason, you don't understand. With Jamey, I just couldn’t --” --Delete the...

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06:08 Nov 10, 2020

Thank you Lina! After Angel Paint I needed a piece with a more positively skewed ending :) And thank you as always for your keen eye! I've made those adjustments - much appreciated. I saw you have a new piece out as well. I'll be dropping by in the next day or two!

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Writer Maniac
04:47 Nov 10, 2020

Woah! That was truly a beautifully written story! I could feel Jason's every emotion, and how much he still loved Zoey. It was heartbreaking to read, especially when Zoey talks about her being ill and leaving to protect them. I absolutely adored this story, and really felt for every character! Incredibly well done! P. S. I would love to hear your thoughts on my stories, especially 'Finally', 'My One', 'Remember' ,'Who Loves Lives' and 'This Moment', please do check them out when you're free :)))

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06:23 Nov 10, 2020

Thank you so much! I really appreciate you taking the time to read this and leave such kind thoughts! I'll come over and take a look at as many of these as I can :)

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20:40 Nov 09, 2020

Great work on this. You have a really strong start, Jason comes off as truly broken. I only intended to skim this at first, but I found myself drawn in. The emotions displayed feel real and hot and heavy. However, there was one flaw I saw; you pace the climax too quickly. It comes and goes too soon for us to sink in and feel it, as we feel the rest of the story. I felt a few key moments could be drawn out to greater effect... When Zoey reveals she's sick, it might be better to stretch it out. Like, wouldn't she be hesitant to admit why...

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20:51 Nov 09, 2020

Thanks Leo! I'll take another look at pushing the foreshadowing. I had hoped that the commentary on her paleness, the lost weight, and the ring threatening to slide of her finger might display a little bit of that but I can massage that piece and see what I come up with! I might steal your eyebrow idea - that is clever :) I'll work on the pacing, I see what you're saying here. Finding that balance is always tricky. I'll take the next few days to work with it and see what I come up with. Thanks for leaving your thoughts and feedback, a...

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21:01 Nov 09, 2020

No problem! I see what you mean with Jason's commentary, but the trouble is that Jason himself gives a cop out--their broken relationship. We never think beyond, because Jason answers the question for us.

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21:25 Nov 09, 2020

Hmm good call.

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Chris Buono
03:01 Nov 10, 2020

Fun read. I like the happy ending that lets us imagine something nice between the characters, it’s heartwarming.

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03:11 Nov 10, 2020

Thanks Chris! Coming off of Angel Paint, I needed something that hinted towards a slightly happier ending.

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Kate Ashton
00:55 Nov 10, 2020

Woah. I may be a little obsessed with how well you integrated the setting into the story. I always struggle with this; it's difficult for me to create strong imagery without losing the plot in the process, and I end up without a distinct setting. Do you have any tips? I love all of your work, and everything you write is enthralling to me.

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02:23 Nov 10, 2020

You're too kind, Kate! I'm so glad you enjoyed this story - and that my writing style seems to click with your reading preferences! That's always great to hear :) I do think my scene-setting and imagery description style is unique on Reedsy. I've read enough pieces to know that purple prose seems to run rampant on this platform. There are many writers (and readers!) who prefer the verbose, over-the-top imagery. I'm a bit more subtle, so please take that into account with the following advice: Advice Piece #1 I prioritize the five se...

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Kate Ashton
14:00 Nov 10, 2020

Thank you so much for the advice! I appreciate any help that I can get. Don't worry about meeting any standards-writing is something that cannot be forced to meet par. Regardless, I think I would enjoy anything you write.

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F. A.
08:22 Nov 19, 2020

I really enjoyed reading this; nicely done! I have no words to say. BEYOND awesome!

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16:21 Nov 19, 2020

You are too kind Sadan! I'm so happy to read that you enjoyed the story. Comments and feedback like this are what keep me motivated :) THANK YOU!

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Radhika Diksha
10:02 Nov 25, 2020

wonderful and emotionally a strong story. The emotions were described very well, it made me feel like I was Jason going through a whirl of emotions. The plotline was on point. The only slight problem I had was the ending. I feel you must have let Zoey go on the stage bald with Jason. It would have made an impact. Aka my opinion. Overall the story was good and amazing. Please do read my story on the same prompt and give your feedback on it.

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Thom Brodkin
22:26 Nov 20, 2020

I'm always looking for stories based on prompts I didn't choose. I didn't choose this one because it seemed so cheesy. I felt like the prompt told the story and all the rest would be fluff. Well you proved me wrong. I did see your foreshadowing but was still caught off guard by the ending. That's the mark of a great writer and a great story. The characters were real, the setting felt right, there wasn't an ounce of cheesiness to be found. I love the title as well. It's one of those things that at the end you go "Ohhhhhhh Yes!" All i...

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02:06 Nov 21, 2020

Hi Thom - thanks for stopping by and giving my story a read! It means quite a lot that you were willing to not only read the piece, but leave such detailed, thoughtful feedback. I'm thrilled you enjoyed it, and relieved that I avoided the cheesiness of the prompt (which, I agree, had a lot of potential to be painfully cheesy). I would be honored to give feedback. I'll click over and give it a read!

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Iris Greyfeather
18:41 Nov 20, 2020

(Deep inhale) it ended on a cliff hanger.

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19:47 Nov 20, 2020

I just couldn't help myself! ;) Thanks for reading!

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Emma Rose
21:28 Nov 19, 2020

This was beautiful!! I loved it!! ❤️

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23:24 Nov 19, 2020

Thank you so much Emma!

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Cal Carson
19:50 Nov 19, 2020

Loved this story! I was instantly drawn in, the emotion felt really tangible. When you use the word 'throes,' I'm not sure if it fits, it could be just me, but throe is a spasm or struggle. Maybe 'throngs' would be more apt? Just remember to spell out your smaller numbers, like when you say, "I’m working with a beautiful canvas here, I only need 10." Make sure it's 'ten' instead. And, "...we need you stage left in 5 minutes," make it 'five' instead. I especially loved the detail of Zoey dabbing her makeup, which ties it back to ...

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23:23 Nov 19, 2020

Hi Cal! Thanks for reading through and taking the time to leave your feedback...I'm very appreciative! Your feedback is very helpful - I'll keep your critiques in mind as I write my next piece :) I think you're one of the first, if not THE first, to notice/mention the parallelism in the makeup! I'm so glad you caught that little detail - I wasn't sure if anyone else would spot it. You've got a keen eye! Thanks again for reading, and for your incredibly kind praise.

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Cal Carson
01:24 Nov 20, 2020

Yeah, of course!

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12:03 Jan 24, 2021

This is a good one. It seems, you have been watching so many reality show. Well done.

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Prathamesh Chavan
13:47 Nov 10, 2020

Hii, Aj Sorry to intervene, in this brutal manner, I have a request for you would be kind to give a single glance over the vehicle which my team had been working over months. https://www.instagram.com/p/CHX5VUPBJOp/?igshid=5f72nb3cgg30 Sorry to take your time and If possible like the post.Because this would help team to win

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