Not quite as pretty as a picture

Submitted into Contest #144 in response to: Write a story that centres around an Instagram post.... view prompt


Fiction Contemporary

If only I could look up at the sky and pinch the sun between my thumb and index finger. Then I could twist it anti-clockwise and dial down the brightness. I could drag it across the sky and banish it behind a cloud. Capturing the right picture in this light was no easy feat. I had to cushion my phone in the sand and set a timer. Then rush into position. Grandma hollered over to me that I looked foolish dashing back and forth, but I was hardly going to entrust her with engineering flattering angles. Now, I have countless photos, but I am still struggling to select the right one. I am lying on my stomach, one hand cradling my phone, with the other cupped over it to shield it from the sun’s rays. My grandma is further up the beach, snapping photos of my brother, who is dunking his head into the ocean.

I tuck my head over my chest, eyes squinting down at the screen.

I want people to look at me without scrutiny or judgement. I want them to want to be right here, imagining the softness of the sand and the delicate frothy tips of the waves. That one’s not quite right. Neither is that one. Delete, delete, delete.

I choose one where my head is cocked slightly to the side to shield the wonkiness of my nose, one leg positioned in front of the other to make my hip jut out further.

Don’t you wish you were me?


I scroll through the filters, my eyes scanning for the one that will best hide my acne, the sunburn on my chest and cheeks, and the scars on my abdomen. My skin is pale like porcelain. I can see the veins below the surface snaking and converging like branches of a river. I select a filter which warms my skin, turning it a golden, no, olive-brown.

My elbows begin to ache. The sand feels lumpy and hard, jutting into my stomach through the thin fabric of the beach towel. If only you could soften the sand. That way, you could sink into it, and it would mould around your body like snow.

I tweak and edit, little by little. I airbrush my skin to swipe away the pimples and the discolouration below my eyes. I squeeze and stretch my pixelated figure as if it were modelling clay, with my thumb and index finger, so my curves look a little curvier; my thighs an inch slimmer, maybe two.

Doesn’t she look so happy? So healthy?


I continue to contort the image, blocking out the sound of the waves crashing and creeping on the shore, and the animalistic squeals and shrieks of my brother, as he throws himself over them. I increase the saturation, so the water is a slightly more inviting shade of blue; the sand a friendlier shade of yellow.

I look at my brother, grinning and splashing in the waves. I feel a twinge of guilt as I tap on the virtual scissors and slash him out of the background – artificial ocean and sky spilling in from both sides to fill the gaping hole he has left behind.

Doesn’t it look so peaceful? So perfect?


I can’t decide if it still looks natural. Have I done too much? I compare it with the original, flicking back and forth between both images. I spend an indefinite amount of time staring at the edited version until I’m convinced it looks worse than it did before. Have I not done enough?

No. I can’t go back and change it now.

This version is better, I decide. They won’t see the extra pounds I’ve gained since the last post, or the long-jagged line across my stomach from the surgery. They will believe my tanned skin and will envy my confidence. Posed like that, I look like I’m stepping toward the camera. Some aspects of my body and surroundings still don’t satisfy my need for perfection, but this is good enough. 

No, this will do. It's the best I can do.

I feel strangely disconnected from the picture, as though I am not really there. Not really here. The sand looks smoother; the water seems calmer.

Don’t you wish you were here?


An inexplicable, sickening feeling washes over me, as I hover my finger over the icon of swirling yellow and purple.

It is like I am falling. I am tumbling out of the sky into the ocean - from one vast blue expanse into another - and my body won’t break the surface; the surface will break me. 

And yet my finger appears to disconnect from the rest of my body and presses down onto the icon.

I notice my heart beat faster, as the feed pops up.

The first post is from a girl I’ve never spoken to in person, lying like a starfish in a snow angel. I wish I were there. With snowflake crystals on my eyelashes, wrapped in a fur coat, a smile plastered across my face. Isn’t it funny how we smile so little, yet are almost always smiling in photos? Maybe, it’s so when we look back, we remember how happy we were at our happiest. Or maybe, how happy we wanted to be.

I mindlessly scroll through my feed, my finger hovering over girls in bikinis and girls in bobble hats.

Perhaps their smiles don’t quite reach their eyes?


I prepare to post my picture, sure that if I leave it any longer, I won't post it at all. It’s like seeing a stranger, another girl on my feed who I recognise, but don't know. I envy the girl with her sun-kissed skin and flawless complexion. I long for the deep blue of the water and the warm yellow of the sand. But when I look closer, I see her lips are pressed together. The sides of her mouth are missing the tell-tale lines of genuine happiness. The smile is a mask. They say a picture speaks louder than words, but this picture of jarring colours and muted textures doesn’t speak to me at all. I’ve contorted it so that it no longer feels real. It fails to capture the sensations of the sand and the sea and the sky. The girl I am looking at isn’t me. She hasn’t braved a kidney transplant; she’s lost her trademark freckles and porcelain skin. This picture muffles the violence of the waves and removes the coarseness of the sand. Her brother is gone.

Do you think she is happy?


The feeling of falling into the ocean returns, and I long to reach the water, just so the feeling will stop.

Without thinking this time, I stand, tossing the phone down onto the towel. Watching as the screen goes black, I abandon it and step towards the white-tipped waves. For the first time, I am aware of how the warm sand feels around my toes, like I am treading on a blanket. I feel the sun warm my back and taste the air – salty and fresh. I rush down to where my brother is squatting in the wet sand, leaving footprints as I stride.

I scoop him up and he squeals as I spin him around above my head. Placing him down, we enter the water together hand in hand. From the shore, grandma snaps a picture on her camera, as we leap over the waves together, till my smile reaches my eyes.

May 05, 2022 16:56

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RBE | Illustrated Short Stories | 2024-06

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