What You Have To Work For

Submitted into Contest #26 in response to: Write about a character who was considered a prodigy when they were young.... view prompt

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I stamped out my cigarette in a cheap, plastic golden trophy. Slim rays of sunlight glinted through the closed blinds. I ruffled one hand through my uncombed while the other searched for a new cigarette. One of the rays hit me in my left eye. I grimaced and ducked from the light.

Reaching for a fallen cigarette on the ground, I hit my head on my unstable night stand. “Fuck!” I cursed under my breath.

I laid down on my bed. Silk sheets pooled around me. I twirled the cigarette in my fingers. My brain buzzed for a hit but my eyes begged for a nap. A cloud blocked the sun outside. The entire room went black. I closed my eyes. You could easily lose track of time like this.

I huffed. Like it had any purpose to it anyway.

A dog was barking outside. My eyes jetted open and my fist clenched closed on instinct. The cigarette crumbled. I grumbled under my breath. That was my last one. I’m gonna have to outside and get more.

Just before I left my house, I glimpse my reaction in the mirror. There was a kind of rugged handsome to it versus my old ‘perfect’ guy look. A symmetrical chin peppered in stubble. I hadn’t shaved in a while. Not that it mattered. I stared dead into my own grey eyes. They’re the only part of me that’s stayed the same these past twelve years.

The cashier held my twenty dollar bill up to the light for a whole minute before deciding I wasn’t conning her. Yeah, lady. I scoffed. Because the first thing I would do if I had counterfeit money is buy a cheap pack of cigarettes at a gas station. Ingenious. “Come again,” she said in a squeaky voice.

I stuffed the carton in my pocket and shuffled to the front door. Stopping outside under the roof’s edge of the gas station, I pulled a stick out of the box and light it. The smoke curled into swirls as I watched it drift into a new light rain. A few drops complied on the ledge and splattered onto my nose. I didn’t flinch.

A voice popped up behind me. “Are you cold?”

I caught a glimpse of her through the corner of my eye. She was a petite platinum blonde with a shy smile. “Nah.” She moved beside me. “Are you lonely?”


She gave me a puzzled look. She opened her mouth to say what I’d thought would be another stupid question. “Do you have a lighter?”

And there it was.

I handed it over. She patted down her coat, searching for a cigarette. “Do you need a cigarette too?”

She grinned at me. “Nah,” the woman answered as she pulled out a sparkler.

My jaw dropped as she lit it and stared at its blue sparks. I heard the words from my lips before I even realized I spoke them. “Pretty.”

“I know right? I have a couple of smoker friends so I always carry a sparkler with me so I have a purpose to be with them while they smoke.”

“So, why did you light it now?”

She shrugged. “Why did you light your cigarette now?”

“I need the dopamine.”

“So did I,” she answered.

“But... you’re not smoking.”

The blonde rolled her eyes. “There are other ways to get dopamine you know.”

“Like sparklers.”

“Like sex,” she said at the same time.

“Wait, what?”

She laughed and quickly diverted attention away from herself. “Never mind. I just got out of this long term relationship. Everything’s a little weird for me. I hadn’t dated in a while.” She added in a murmur. “Or flirted. I can’t even handle anything serious right now.” 

I squashed my cigarette against the cement wall and flicked it into a nearby trash can. Before I left, I moved in close to her war. My breath tingled her neck hairs. “Neither am I.”

I walked away.

She stamped out her sparkler.

That night, I swooshed and stared at the whiskey in my glass. The bartender glared at me for a bigger tip. Somewhere in the background was a girl on her twenty-first birthday looking at me while her friends gossip behind perfectly polished hands. They shook her shoulders, prattling on for her to make a move. I set the now-empty glass down and motioned for a refill. He moved slowly. Just another Friday night.

“Hey not-so stranger,” the blonde with an affinity for sparklers sat down next to me. Somewhere in the background, a girl on her twenty-first birthday clenched her fist and swore vengeance on the blonde beside me. Funny, that usually happens on Saturdays.

“Damn, you got a small army forming in that corner,” she said as she took a sip of her gin and tonic. “I think they’re gunning to kill me.”

“Usually are. Better be careful, their nails are razor sharp.”

She flung her head back and laughed. I leaned in closer. “Before you turn into a gravestone, mind telling me your name?”

“It’s Lindsey.”

“I’m Dennis.”

“Do you come here often?” She said into her cup as she took a sip, quickly changing the subject.

“Yeah, I’m a regular.” The bartender slid me another drink. “A regular alcoholic.”

“How fun.”

The girl-mob slid their table a foot closer to eavesdrop. “I know,” I whispered to her, “somewhere we can go that doesn’t have blood-thirsty sorority girls.”

She fluttered her eyelashes. “Oh? You trying to make a move?”

I chuckled and wrapped my right arm around her. “Of course.” I flashed a grin. “You do know the best way to get over a bad breakup, don’t you?”

“Enlighten me..”

Lindsey woke up the next morning tangled in my silk sheet. I was perched by the bedroom door, buckling up my pants. The blinds were partly open, but I still squirmed in the direct light.

“Well, that was…” She fought with the sheets. “Something!” She said with an oof! as she fell into the cold floor. Her head banged against my plastic trophy. “Ow.” 

She picked it up. “Dennis Wedgeburn.” She read. “What’s this for? Only your name is engraved.”

I took it from her, weighing it in my hands. “My mother gave it to me.”

“Your mother?” She blinked. “Not some kind of competition?”

Please, the only kind of competitions for child actors are auditions.”

She buttoned up her top. “Now, I’m intrigued. You were a child actor?”

I sighed. “Yeah. I was the star on a couple of shows. My mother gave me the trophy when I got my first starring role.”

“Do you still act?”

I raked my hands through my hair. “Nah. I grew tired of it.”

She was fully dressed and searching for her shoes. “So, do you have any hobbies or job?”

“No, and I don’t need any. I still have plenty of money.”

Lindsey sucked in her breath and jammed her heel into a boot. “That’s not really the point of it, you know.”

I furrowed my brow. “No, I don’t.”

Before she headed out, she placed a hand on my bare chest and gazed into my eyes. “Well, if you ever wanna find out…” She stuffed a piece of paper on my hand. “Come here.”

And just like that, she was gone.

A cloud enveloped the sun and the familiar darkness came back.

I impatiently tapped my toe against the sidewalk. My eyes darted from side to side before landing back on the middle school again and again. I reread the address in my hand. Herds of middle schoolers flocked from the doors to their freedom. After taking a deep breath, I entered their former prison.

“I’m looking for… Lindsey?” I asked the secretary at the front door. “She’s kind of short and blonde? Asked me to meet her here?” My voice felt hollow and uncertain. I doubt my good looks would do anything in this situation. More than likely I just looked like an unshaven creep. Trying to enter a middle school. That’ll be an interesting police report.

The secretary gave me a sideways glance. “You mean, Ms. Thompson?”

Sure. That could be her last name. “Yes.”

Her eyes only narrowed at me. “There isn’t a Lindsey Thompson in this building.” Her hand hovered above the landline. Her eyes screamed that she was gunning for a quick draw to call the police. A panicked sweat thickened on my palms.

“What I meant was—”

“Oh! Dennis!” I heard a voice calling out.

Spinning around, Lindsey stood before me. My heart skipped a beat. Maybe it was because the secretary wasn’t going to call the cops on me now, or maybe…

“Hey, Lindsey,” I said her name like a loud snob while I gave the secretary a side glance of my own. 

Lindsey grabbed my arm and pulled it close to me. “Don’t worry, Clarice. He’s with me.”

“Yeah, I’m with her.”

Clarice motioned Lindsey closer and whispered. “Are you sure? Because I have pepper spray in my bag if you need it.”

My mouth gaped open as Lindsey waved a dismissing hand. “No, I can handle him all on my own.”

Swiftly, she tugged me away. I murmured to her. “You know, I’m pretty sure she was about to call the cops on me.”

“Yeah, your pretty looks won’t help you here.”

Knew it.

“Why did you ask me here?”

We stopped at the door to the art room. “Why did you come?”

I didn’t answer. With a smirk, she lured me inside.

“Are you an art teacher?” I inquired as she dug through the teacher’s desk. “Or just nosy?”

“Both!” The blonde replied as she pulled out a sketchbook. She handed me a sliver of paper. I stared at it. Rolling her eyes, she explained. “To draw, duh.”

“I—I don’t like drawing.”


“Because I’m not good at it.”

Lindsey paused and purses her lips. “That’s because it’s an acquired skill, dummy.”

I handed it back to her. “Still not interested.”

She pushed my hand back at me. “Humor me?”

With a small groan, I hunkered down at one of the tables. My pencil made a dot on the paper, but refused to move. I felt my face heat up. “This is stupid, I don’t even know what to draw.”

She sat down beside me with her sketch book. “Anything you want.”

That’s so helpful,” I snapped.

“Isn’t it just?” With a flip, her open sketchbook stared back at me. There were doodles, sketches, half-drawn animals, and an odd amount of naked bodies. Finally, she reached a blank page. “The best way to start is imitation and tracing. Follow what I do, okay?”

“Hhmmff! I don’t need to trace! I’m an adult!”

“Really? Because from the way you’re acting you remind me of my students. And they’re ten. Just repeat what I do, okay?”

I grunted, but agreed.

By the end, Lindsey had drawn a beautiful daffodil. I had drawn a stick and a circle. My eye twitched, I crumpled the paper, and threw it in the trash. I slouched down in my chair. “This is stupid.”

“Why is it stupid?”

I gestured blankly at the table. “Because… because…”

“It doesn’t come easily to you?” She finished.

Annoyed, I crossed my arms.

She huffed and mirrored my crossed arms. “You said you were actor because you were good at it, right?”

“Yeah, so?”

“And if you weren’t?”

“Then I’d do something else. Duh.”

She sighed. “You’re playing life with what it hands you, not what you earn. No wonder you’re so goddamn miserable. You don’t care about anything you’re not naturally good at. God, I fear what you would have done if you hadn’t been a naturally good actor.”

I grumbled under my breath. “And what’s wrong with being naturally good at something?”

“Nothing,” she answered. “But you might want to consider actually working for a skill you genuinely like.”

Abruptly, I stood up and knocked over my chair. “What the hell do you know anyway?!” I eyed her sketch. Everything so professionally done. “How dare you lecture me if you’re just using your own natural talents?” I shouted as I walked towards the door. “Why do you even care?”

Just before I left, Lindsey called out to me. “Ask me a math problem.”

I stopped. “What?”

“Any multiplication problem. As hard as you can make it.”

“Fine. Fifty-six times twelve.”

“Six hundred and seventy-two. Try a little harder.”

I gritted my teeth. “Eighty-seven times a hundred and four!”

“Nine thousand and forty-eight. Is that really all you got?”

“Five thousand, seven hundred and thirteen times eleven thousand, nine hundred and forty-seven!” I gasped, nearly out of breath from screaming math.

She took a deep breath and screamed. “Sixty-eight million, two hundred and fifty-three thousand, two hundred and eleven!”

“What the fuck is wrong with you!” I stared at her empty hands. Not a calculator in sight.

“That’s my natural talent! Mental math! I was a prodigy, too! And I almost let something I didn’t even like take over my life! That’s why I care--because you remind me of who I used to be.” In a quiet voice, she added. “I didn’t just have smoker friends, I was a smoker.” She pointed at a crummy stick figure drawing taped to the wall. “And for the record, that was my first sketch. I told you, it’s an acquired skill. But I stuck with it because I actually liked it.”

I clenched my fist. The crumpled paper mocked me from the trash can. “Well I don’t!” Was all I said before slamming the door close and leaving Lindsey behind. The lights flickered in the hallway before a bulb blew out.

I returned to the bar late that night. A twenty-one-and-one-day old blonde girl sang terribly in the background. I inhaled my drinks, hoping the sound of rushing liquor would drown out her words. You’re playing life with what you have, not what you earn. Another drink. That’s why you’re so goddamn miserable. I locked eyes with the new blonde girl and smirked.

Who’s miserable again?

It wasn’t until late that night that Lindsey finally found her way home. Heavy grocery bags burdened her arms as she battled with her coat to find her house key.

“Dammit, where are they?” She muttered under her breath.

The milk dropped and spilled on the ground. The blonde sighed as she realized the truth.

She had left her house key at my house.

Impatient, Lindsey rang the door five times in a row. She was shivering outside and it was nearly midnight. She tried the door. Unlocked. Lindsey let herself in.

“Hello?” Her voice echoed as she flipped on the lights. “Dennis? I left my keys here.”

On the kitchen counter, Lindsey spotted her shiny key. “Found you!” She exclaimed as she snatched it from the counter.

From upstairs, Lindsey heard a loud thud. Like someone had rollen out of bed. Then, footsteps running down the stairs as Dennis appeared. “L-Lindsey!” I stammered half-naked while standing on the stairs. “What are you doing here?”

“I forgot my house key here. Kind of need it.”

A second pair of footsteps treaded downstairs. “Dennis, honey, who is it?” The blonde surveyed Lindsey with only one of my over-sized shirts draped over her body.

Lindsey stared at the new blonde. In that moment, I realized how similar the two looked. And how bad I fucked up.

“Is this just what you do?” Lindsey inquired. “Being a smoker and alcoholic isn’t enough so you just gotta add sex addict to it?”

I straightened my shoulders and glared at her. “Why do you care? Are jealous or something? I thought you weren’t looking for anything serious?” I defend.

“I’m not! But, you’re a shitty actor if you think I’ll actually believe this act. That this actually makes you happy.”

“Who said I was acting?”

“Well, then I guess you aren’t a shitty actor. Just a shitty person.”

Lindsey didn’t even bother to slam the door when she left. I felt my heart sink in her absence. And I just stared into the piercing black night it left open for me.

The next morning, I sent the nameless blonde off without another word. I stared down at a blank piece of paper in front of me. Anxious, I tapped the graphite on the paper. I still couldn’t think of what to draw.

Anything you want.

What I want?

In a sudden outburst, the pencil ran across the page. I know what I want now.

In the middle of her first class, I burst through the door of Lindsey’s art class. Eighteen pairs of eyes shifted to me. Sunlight gleamed through the window. I didn’t flinch. “Lindsey,” I breathed. “I have something else I wanted to give you.”

She glared at me. “What? Did I forget something else?”

“Just this.” I handed her my first drawing.

It was a drawing of two stick figures. One labelled Dennis and the other labelled Lindsey. Their little stick hands were joined.

“I’ll be going now,” I muttered as I headed for the door.

“Yeah, you should,” Lindsey said. “But, be sure to stop by after class. By the looks of this, you’ll be needing a lot more lessons.”

I smiled. “I don’t mind. After all, drawing is an acquired skill, isn’t it?”

February 01, 2020 04:46

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1 comment

Zoe Cote
19:19 Feb 06, 2020

Hey Cara, I was assigned your story as part of Reedsy's critique circle initiative. I loved the phrase, "peppered with stubble." I've never heard that before; it has a wonderful cadence! The plot was also very gripping, and you guided the reader very well with your transitions. If I have one comment for improvements in the future it would be to use a more varied combination of sentence structures. You use a lot of simple sentences at the beginning and I think flow would be improved by combining and rearranging some of those into compound a...


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