Picture Perfect

Submitted into Contest #144 in response to: Write about a character who’s pathologically camera shy.... view prompt

47 comments

Fiction Contemporary Sad

This story contains sensitive content

Content warning: Eating disorder

My friends used to believe I was an only child. Whenever I'd invite one over for the first time and we passed by the framed photos on the way to my bedroom—of me and my mother smiling on the sandy beaches of Maui, or the two of us standing beside the Grand Canyon, arms locked in a sweaty embrace—they always took the pictures at face value, and not once did I bother to correct them. As far as they knew, Holly Johnson didn't exist.

Though, had she appeared in any of our family photos, perhaps they would have mistaken my sister for a friend, another brunette girl whom I brought along to stave off the boredom of an alpine vacation alone with my mom. Or maybe even a tourist, someone we met while whale-watching on a cruise ship or a girl we bonded with over breakfast bagels and muffins at the Four Seasons, a girl who just happened to have my emerald stare and arched eyebrows.

Certainly they wouldn't have suspected my sister, two years older and 140 pounds heavier, to have anything to do with me.

***

The week after graduating high school, Holly's longtime boyfriend, Phil, landed her a waitress job at Great Burger, a restaurant you couldn't leave without the smell of grease following you for the next five miles. Five nights a week she paraded around that joint, pigtailed and sporting a too-tight plaid shirt and speaking in an affected southern accent, feeding phrases like "How y'all doin'?" and "Come back now, y'hear" to her customers like appetizers.

She returned home around nine each night, filling the house with the aroma of French fries and bacon grease. Even from the sanctity of my room the smell was unmistakable. When the stench came, I always paused whichever old Disney song I had playing on YouTube and listened to my family's muffled voices downstairs. Invariably Mom would ask if Holly was hungry, and invariably she'd say, "No, I'm okay, I brought home a salad from the restaurant," then rustle the paper bag in her hand.

Later, in the room above hers, I always smelled other things whenever Holly gently uncrumpled her paper sack: the musk of garlic powder on ground beef, the sugar-sweet scent of apple pie. Never salad.

In my dresser drawer, buried beneath a heap of clothes and a packet of birth control pills, I kept a photo of Holly that I still own to this day. As far as I knew, it was the only picture we owned where she appeared, the only one she hadn't needlessly thrown away. In the photo she is forever ten years old, smiling despite having both buck and missing teeth. She is standing in front of a summer camp cabin with her Girl Scout troop, dressed in a beret and a sash speckled with merit badges. It is sunny, the sky impossibly blue and never-ending.

In the photo she is thin. You couldn't tell her apart from any of the other girls, a brown-haired wave in an ocean of calm. She is thin and she is smiling, my sister.

In the photo her eyes are open wide, but there is so much she couldn't have seen back then: the way our father, sleep-deprived, would take a wrong turn a few months later and hit a semi-truck head-on; the way our mother would walk through the house in a daze afterwards, forgetting to restock the pantry and buying us greasy fast food instead; the war Holly's metabolism would wage against her body; the boy in her seventh grade class, the one she'd had a crush on for years, the one who looked at her on the first day of the school year and called her a "fat ass."

The day that last one happened, she locked herself in her room and wouldn't open the door for Mom. It was only later, after dinner, when I knocked that she ushered me in and explained what happened.

And I laughed. Hearing those two words together like that, "fat ass," I laughed in my sister's face. I couldn't stop, couldn't help myself, couldn't explain that I wasn't laughing at her but at the word "ass," that my ten-year-old brain still thought swear words were funny by nature.

It was a lot less funny when she started crying and asked me to leave.

That was what I always thought of whenever I heard Holly unpacking her Great Burger dinner and the lonely smell of onions came wafting up through the floorboards: how she needed me that day, how she was looking for a friend with those big eyes of hers, how there was so much she couldn't see.

***

The day Holly lost her job was different.

I paused "Part of Your World" at exactly 9 p.m. and waited to hear the telltale jingle of keys, the turning of the lock, Mom's speedy muting of the TV. But by 9:20, the only sound in the house was the distant mumbles of the Golden Girls.

It was 11:15 when I finally heard the jangle of the front doorknob. Mom was snoring in her room. Downstairs, Holly slammed her keys down and trudged to her room. There was no paper bag slapping against her thigh, only the sound of her footfalls. I tried to imagine her down there, swaying under the windowed glow of moonlight. Why was she home so late?

I tried not to think about it, tried to let it go, until I heard a sound like someone grunting, coming from the room under mine. Then it happened again and again. Placing my pillow over my head, I tried to ignore it, but after a few minutes I couldn't take it. I slid out of bed, popped my feet into a pair of slippers, and tiptoed downstairs.

Leaning against Holly's door, I tried to discern what the noise was. It came again as soon as I put my ear to the door, and I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. My throat dried.

When I opened the door, I saw her there in her bathroom, hunched over with her mouth positioned over the toilet. The room smelled acrid, bitter. On command, my sister raised her dirty index finger and ran it down the back of her throat, and the noise came again, like a bucket of water being poured in an ocean.

When I gathered the courage to rap on her door, she gave me a passing glance, eyes half-lidded, like she was trying to place me but she couldn't see. I noticed a strange fruity scent underneath the bitter stench, the work of alcohol. Holly's face was flushed. I didn't know what to say, so I waited and eventually she spoke first: "Phil left me. Take a guess why."

And the retching sound started again.

***

I handled the situation poorly; that much I can say with certainty now. Because that night instead of being there for my sister, instead of being a friend, I ran straight to Mom's room. I felt like I was six instead of sixteen, barging in and turning on all the lights and rousing my mother from her sleep. I told her everything, crying like Holly had so long ago on the first day of seventh grade.

What I hadn't expected was to come home from the mall the next day and find my sister's room vacant, most of her things gone.

"Your sister needs time," Mom explained when I finally asked her. She looked across the table over her Chinese takeout.

"Can we see her?" I asked, poking at my chow mein.

Mom pointed her chopsticks at me and said, "She'll get better in that treatment center. We have to let her get better. It's important."

Eventually I stopped asking. Whenever I broached the subject of Holly, Mom would stop and look out the nearest window as though we were discussing someone from the past, a close friend from whom she'd drifted apart long ago.

But the thing is—the thing I never did tell my mother is—I did go once, to visit my sister in the treatment center, months after Holly was taken there.

The place was sterile, immaculate. Air-conditioning pumped through the building, fending off my body heat. The woman at the front desk who checked me in and asked me to verify my information and to show my ID wore the biggest, whitest smile I'd ever seen. She was thin, beautiful. She told me where I could find my sister.

When I got to Holly's room, I rapped on the door, this time like I meant it. The breath left my body when she turned to greet me. I'm positive I gasped, quick and loud.

Holly's face was much slimmer, angular, her arms half the size as they were when she'd worked at Great Burger. I hadn't seen her waist so slender since we were in grade school. Her eyes looked the same but there was something else there, something deeper.

"How do I look?" she asked, and her voice sent chills through my body. It was raspy, tired. It didn't fit the image.

"You," I started, but the word came out as a whisper. "You look great." And it wasn't a lie, but it wasn't my sister either.

Halfway through getting reconnected, Holly looked over my shoulder. I followed her eyes but saw nothing, no one. That's when she leaned in and told me her secret.

"I've got a friend here who helped me get like this," she said, meeting my emerald eyes with her own. Quickly, she reached into her pocket and flashed something small and white—a pill. "Her mom packs them inside the Bibles she sends."

I blinked, taken aback, then patted my clothes ostentatiously to show her I had no such goodies to give.

"It's cool," Holly said, and shrugged. "I didn't expect you to."

Outside the window behind Holly, the clouds rolled across the sun, casting shadows over the room. She looked different, my sister, framed in that light. It felt like I was seeing her for the first time. Something uneasy churned in my stomach.

"I've gotta go," I told her. "I've stayed too long anyway. Mom said you'd probably get better on your own."

I turned to leave and was already halfway out the door when my sister stopped me.

"Wait, Shelby," she said. "I want you to take my picture."

And just like that, I stopped right there in the middle of the doorway, the threshold between both of our lives. One foot in her world, one foot leading back to mine.

She smiled her buck tooth smile and said it again: "I want you to take my picture. You don't have to show Mom or anything. Just save it for me. For later, okay?"

The phone in my pocket felt like an anchor, the weight of a conscience. But somehow I managed to retrieve it. "Okay."

Her smile widened and she propped one leg up against the other, threw her hand behind her head, and winked. My sister, little Miss Camera Shy.

I took her photo.

She laughed when I went to put my phone away. "Wait, hold on," she said, beckoning for the phone. "Lemme see. I bet I look picture perfect now."

The photo took up the entire screen on my phone. I stared at it and a stranger stared back. And I remembered the photo of Holly, still in my dresser back at home. I had a hard time reconciling the two. The girl on my screen looked like she could be anyone else: a tourist, a friend. I'm not sure I recognized her.

"Come on, Shel. I wanna see how the real me looks," she said, looking at me expectantly, her hand still out.

The phone shook in my grasp. "Me too," I said, and decided which direction to move my feet, which way to go.

May 07, 2022 03:54

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47 comments

Riel Rosehill
07:27 May 07, 2022

"As expected, there was no need to have low expectations: this was great!" Throwing this back your way right now! 😉 Strong first paragraph - as per usual! My first thought was that the sister's dead. It gave me such anxiety reading this, thinking about all the ways it was like or different from that time I had been visiting my sister when she was in hospital with anorexia. (She's better now.) Terrifying. This sort of thing can traumatize a whole family... And it's true that it's like you are looking at a different person and it's hard to co...

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Zack Powell
14:59 May 07, 2022

Thank you! ❤️ This actually turned out much better than I was expecting (minus the 20 typos I've had to correct since posting, LOL). You just never know what to expect when that deadline is terrorizing you. I hadn't even considered the opening paragraph sounding like the older sister was dead. 😂 Woops! But that's really cool that you were interpreting it that way. I like it, I like it. You should totally write about this topic too - it's a wild ride. The threshold line was my absolute favorite, so you and I have something in common! 😅 Th...

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Riel Rosehill
15:51 May 07, 2022

Virtual cheers! 🥂 (I'm just remembering seeing a bottle of alcohol called "writers tears", I'm gonna imagine that's what you'll celebrate with, thinking of us losers 🤣) I didn't even have time to hunt down my typos 😂 For what it's worth I never thought you overused commas, but then, Google docs keeps asking me to remove them from my sentences, so 🤷🏻‍♀️ Breaking news, we have some things in common.😃 PS: Did you get the email? X

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Zack Powell
08:15 May 09, 2022

😂 I did end up celebrating with alcohol. You called it. And I most definitely thought of you guys, and how when you win, you're gonna do the same thing. 🤣 I'm sure I do overuse them (they're my favorite piece of punctuation). But haters gonna hate, and comma-ers gonna comma. 🤷🏻‍♀️ P.S. I did get the email! (And fiiiiinally got around to my rejoinder - yes, I'm slow. 😂)

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Riel Rosehill
08:56 May 09, 2022

Yay! ❤️ Sidenote, did you notice that in your email "zdpowell" reads like "zaddypowell"? I love it! PS: have you listened to J.C. on the Read Lots Write Lots podcast..? 👀

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Zack Powell
10:29 May 09, 2022

LOL, I'm gonna thank my parents today for giving me a middle name that starts with D. Clearly they saw decades into the future and predicted the slang of the 2020s. 😂 I did listen to it! Bless you, J.C., for giving a shoutout to us peasants! ❤️ (Plus, I was DYING laughing, so thanks for the entertainment, too!)

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Michał Przywara
22:15 May 07, 2022

The sad tag is very fitting here. Considering how it started, I was worried for much of the story that Holly either was already dead, or would take her own life. There was a feeling throughout, like Shelby talking with her mother observed, of "discussing someone from the past". This is an ugly topic, but a good look at it. I like that we get a triggering event with the father's death and the mother's shock, then all the little hurdles that tripped Holly up. Particularly, I like the sibling interactions. "couldn't explain that I wasn't lau...

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Zack Powell
07:32 May 09, 2022

Thanks for such a thorough comment, Michał. You're as great a reader as you are a writer. You got what I was going for here, with the hurdles, the shoddy communication from the family, and the ambiguity of the ending. Nailed it all. I love your last note about the direness of the narrative. Very true - the first person POV definitely paints this in a specific light, since it's Shelby telling someone else's story. It's completely subjective. And now I kinda wish I'd told this from Holly's POV. Hmm, there's a thought. Thanks for giving me a n...

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J.C. Lovero
15:51 May 07, 2022

Hey Reedsy pen pal! Taking a quick stop to tell you how great this story was. I think I've told you this before, but I will say it again: I LOVE me a sibling story. There's something about siblings and their dynamics that I find so fascinating, and you really captured the essence of how complex those relationships can be here. The narrator's words really came through as authentic and reflective, how the current version of herself thought about how her actions of the past could have been handled differently. An introspective person by natu...

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Zack Powell
07:39 May 09, 2022

🍻 My pen pal, my friend! Thank you for stopping by. Ditto on loving sibling stories. The dynamic is unlike any other relationship, and it's just so much fun to explore. Similarly, introspective/reflective characters are also a blast to write. Who doesn't wish there was some event in the past where they could've acted differently, right? Definitely celebrated my win with some beers of my own the past two days. Only a matter of time until we're celebrating you winning. Mark my words. 'Til then, cheers!🍻

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Suma Jayachandar
13:12 May 07, 2022

You tackle one sensitive topic after another every week and come up with an honest, realistic portrayal of many dimensions of it as if you have lived it. You really have an old and wise soul in you, Zack. Your effortless transitions through timelines, settings and emotions in this story can be a masterclass to any aspiring writer. There are many lines and paragraphs that really hit me hard, but the hardest one was where Holly quietly unwraps her fried food in her room and eats it alone. Congratulations on the win! Wish you many more!

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Zack Powell
15:04 May 07, 2022

Thank you very much, Suma! This is such a beautiful, encouraging comment. I'm ecstatic that the stories come across as honest and realistic. That's my biggest goal writing these. Thanks again, and I hope to see another win from you in the near future! Fingers crossed.

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Kelsey H
09:21 May 07, 2022

Do I sound like a bad person for saying I'm always happy when I see a sad story from you?! I think you share my love of sad stories though. Love that opening line. What a great way to start the story and set the tone. Also when I saw the eating disorder warning, my mind went straight to anorexia, so I liked that you took the more unexpected direction. And then I initially thought she must be dead, so I liked the reveal and how it is not clear at first where she is and why there are no photos of her. The way you described the place Holly ...

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Zack Powell
08:05 May 09, 2022

I LOVE how much effort you put into these comments, Kelsey. Very glad to have a friend like you who leaves no stone unturned. And no, you don't sound like a bad person, and yes, I absolutely do share your love of sad stories. Gimme a tearjerker over a happily ever after any day of the week. The characters are much more fun for me to write. Glad to know that the opening pulled its weight. It's really funny to me that so many people thought Holly was dead at the beginning, which is great because she more or less IS like a specter in the house...

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Kelsey H
03:27 May 10, 2022

Ok the job thing does make sense like that, possibly because the written order of sequence the job loss was mentioned first I didn't pick it up. It is one of those things which can be hard to know how much of what's in your head to explain in the story I guess!

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Cora Kuehn
17:40 Jun 01, 2022

This was an amazing story to read, such deep meaning behind it and the way you described in such detail without making it too long is amazing

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Zack Powell
18:44 Jun 01, 2022

Thank you, Cora! I thought it dragged a bit while I was writing it, so I'm glad it didn't feel too long for you.

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Ace Quinnton
23:58 May 31, 2022

I know a small handful of people who have eating disorders. And being both the Chaotic big sibling along with an anxiety mom friend, I took it upon myself to help them. Concern because my lot of comrades have dark humor (which I also do too) and trying to tear them from being serious to being sarcastic. I know quite a lot about Anorexia and Bulimia. Trust me, it is definitely NOT a healthy mindset to have. Once you realize what you are doing is wrong, it's so hard to get out of the cage you built around yourself. It takes time, dedication, c...

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Bradon L
01:52 May 21, 2022

Every time I miss a few weeks of reedsy, Zack Powell cranks out masterpieces that pull emotions every which way! (Congrats on your recent win by the way! Definitely deserved it). You are a master of emotions! Shelby’s feelings, wrong or right, we’re so real you could taste them! (Not literally, but you know what I mean). I felt like I was reading about a real person and their experiences. Well done!

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Lavonne H.
15:31 May 15, 2022

Dear Zack, I read with my heart so I gave a long shriek of noooooo to your ending! I cannot believe that Shelby would reject her sister like that (I am assuming that she walked out the door because of her "me too" comment.) Your writing has so much power -- to educate us with perspectives we ignore or recoil from. The raising of a feather quill to you! May you always bring insight to others through your stories. Yours in writing, Lavonne

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Zack Powell
23:38 May 15, 2022

Lavonne! Long time, no see! Haven't spotted a story from you in a while, so I'm very glad to know you're still okay and on Reedsy. Though the story ended ambiguously, in my mind, I also think Shelby rejects her sister and walks out the door. Wanted everyone to draw their own conclusions, and it looks like you and I came to the same one. I'm of the opinion that all writing has the power to educate, if it's used for that purpose. But hey, I'll definitely take a compliment any day of the week! Thanks as always. Looking forward to reading your n...

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Scott Skinner
14:35 May 13, 2022

This story captured the feeling a younger sibling has watching their older sibling grow up (and make mistakes) quite nicely. The part where the narrator laughs at "fat ass" anchors the story for me. She was 10, too innocent to know the weight of her words, but now that she's older, she understands how she may have missed the mark at that moment. She thinks that if she had acted differently, things could have been better for her sister. It touches on the guilt that family members, especially siblings, have in these moments from their youth. I...

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20:13 May 10, 2022

I love this story so much! You write difficult topics so beautifully, your tone in all these stories is so understanding, this one especially. This story felt like a teenager’s authentic reaction to tragedy and trauma. I really loved this story!

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Zack Powell
20:47 May 10, 2022

Thank you very much, Ella! This is such a wonderful compliment.

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Cindy Strube
17:07 May 10, 2022

Zack, Comments are already so thorough on this one that I can’t add much other than a personal note: The sibling interaction is intense. I’m an only child (and have an only child), so I don’t have “sibling” experience. But - all the way through, I thought of my mom and her sister. We always knew there was something “off” about my aunt’s behavior. The sisters never had a real sisterly relationship. We realized aunt was bulimic, but she’d never admit it. My mom was distressed over her little sister’s condition and was very compassionate. Tri...

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Zack Powell
20:03 May 10, 2022

What a heartbreaking experience with your mom and aunt. Thank you for sharing your story. My hearts goes out to all of you. These situations are so tricky to navigate. Good to know that the ambiguity here worked for you. I never know if it's gonna come across as unsatisfying to the reader. I just like being able to imagine the different futures of the characters for myself. I'd definitely encourage you to write about a narcissistic relationship, should the right prompt come along (or off Reedsy, on your own time). Some of my own favorite st...

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Cindy Strube
16:52 May 11, 2022

Yes, well - now the wheels are turning and it probably will happen sometime, somewhere!

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05:37 May 10, 2022

Great story Zack. Question: at the end, when Shelly's 'deciding.' She's deciding which 'real me,' her sister is, the one in the photo on her phone taken a few seconds ago, or the one hidden in her drawers aged ten. Right? I guess having some ambiguity there is interesting, but I wasn't entirely sure that's what she was deciding. There's a pall hanging over the current Holly. Is she still Holly, or is she now Holly-dependent-on-drugs? (And if so, which drugs? Diet pills? Heroin?) But it's cruel to imply that your current sibling is ...

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Zack Powell
06:45 May 10, 2022

Thanks, Marcus! I love how deeply you thought about the ending - that's the sign of a great reader right there. Yeah, you got it right. It's an ambiguous, tricky situation at the end, trying to reconcile the image of her sister she had when she was much younger vs. the drug-addled path that Holly is currently on, and deciding whether to stay in her sister's life or leave her behind. Just a tough decision all around. I'm not sure what the answer is for Shel, honestly. No clear resolution here - totally open to interpretation.

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Aeris Walker
00:47 May 10, 2022

This reminded me of a Sarah Dessen novel—you really got into the mind of a preteen/teenage girl and understood her struggles in the context of what life would be like for a family suffering tragedy and loss. Your writing is straightforward, clean, and heartfelt without unnecessary superfluity. I enjoyed your story.

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Zack Powell
06:34 May 10, 2022

Thank you very much, Aeris. A comparison to any novelist is a huge compliment, and especially so for Sarah Dessen. I try to write as straightforwardly as possible, so I appreciate hearing that it's still heartfelt. Your story this week was great also.

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Aeris Walker
08:48 May 10, 2022

I love a good character driven story—for me, those are the ones that stick around longer than a nice story wrapped up in too much formality. I heard it said once to that we are the main characters of our stories, and often think of siblings as side characters, when in reality, we are side characters in their life as well. A good story about sibling relationships can show just how much we shape each other.

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Shea West
20:08 May 09, 2022

I think what I appreciate most here is the the MC's POV is of the sister of the sister with the eating disorder. It might have been so easy to just write from the POV of the girl with Bulimia, but you didn't. It's like when interventions are done: Your drinking has impacted me in the following ways.... I envision Shelby having to sit with a therapist one day because of all the secondary trauma she's had to experience with her father's death and now her sister's disorder. A subtle trauma you threw in was the disconnect of the mother... It...

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Shea West
20:23 May 09, 2022

Also, if you ever want to read a story of similar merit/topic check out Scott Skinner's "Big Girl" https://blog.reedsy.com/short-story/1m50bg/

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Zack Powell
00:01 May 10, 2022

Thanks, Shea, for both the feedback and the story recommendation (love getting 'em)! Good to know the POV filtered through the right character here. It's more interesting, I think, to watch how something like this affects someone you love instead. Great idea, going to treatment more than once! I'm thinking about expanding this one in the future, so that suggestion is going straight to the top of the idea list. Thanks for that!

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00:46 May 09, 2022

This story felt so real, almost like I was reliving an experience. Great job!

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Zack Powell
07:21 May 09, 2022

Thank you, Clinton! That's a huge compliment, when the story feels real.

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Awexis Wafflez
17:04 May 08, 2022

So sad…but I love it. Amazing, as normal. :) Edit: I want to write something, but I’m not sure what to write. If you could give me an idea, that would be great. Thanks!! :D

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Zack Powell
07:21 May 09, 2022

Thanks, Awexis! I'm always glad to have your support. I'm completely stumped on what I want to write this week, so I'm not sure how helpful I can be. But when I'm just writing for fun, I like to write about interesting relationships between people (usually siblings or child/parent), or about characters getting themselves into wacky/bad situations and having to maneuver through. I'd recommend that last one. Stick your character in a bind and force them to try to unstick themselves.

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Awexis Wafflez
12:51 May 09, 2022

Ok, thank you!

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Kai Corvus
23:55 May 07, 2022

Zack, if you keep writing stories this good I'm gonna run out of compliments to give you. Holy cow, this was a story. Love the creative integration of the prompt, especially tying it into the ending. This was very great character development. Very realistic portrayal of eating disorders, too. It can affect even the most outwardly confident people. I've noticed that you're very good at these endings: ones that leave on a cliffhanger (is she going to keep her sister in her life or leave?) but don't leave all of the plot lines unresolved. ...

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Zack Powell
07:17 May 09, 2022

Thank you, Kai, always so kind. Very happy that this came across as realistic - this isn't my area of expertise whatsoever. Cliffhanger/ambiguous endings are a huge crutch for me, for better or worse, but I just adore the idea of giving the reader the ability to interpret what happens next for themselves. Works better with some stories than others, for sure. Thanks for reading. P.S. My full name is Zachary, so you technically never misspelled it to begin with. I just like how 'k' looks more than 'h.' (Then again, I'm weird, sooo. 🤷)

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Kai Corvus
17:01 May 09, 2022

Of course, Zack!! I'm always happy to give feedback :) I hope you don't mind if I ask for a favor- If you have the time, my friend wrote a story that I think you'd enjoy, and I know that she would appreciate it if you checked it out. https://blog.reedsy.com/short-story/zmqrqc/

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Zack Powell
17:56 May 09, 2022

Absolutely! I'd love to check it out.

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Sasan Sedighi
14:44 May 07, 2022

Great story. This is the beginning of a longer story, perhaps a novel. I really want to know what will kappen to Holly later.

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Zack Powell
07:13 May 09, 2022

I hadn't considered making this story any longer than it is now, but that's a great suggestion. I might have to return to these characters. Thanks for reading, Sasan!

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