This story is by Nancy VanPatten and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Mom, can you take me to the library?”
“Do you need something for school?”
“No. Actually, there’s a local photographer named Walter Haskell showing some of his work. He’s been all over town for the past few months taking pictures of anything and everything. Mrs. Oliver has used some of his pictures in our class to teach us about composition, light and shade and even subject matter. Any student who attends and submits a brief review will get extra credit toward our final grade. So, can we go?”
“Sure, Honey. Grab my keys.”
Michaela was surprised to see so many people milling about the library when she entered the double doors. Though crowded, she didn’t expect to see any of her classmates there. Most of those taking Photography 101 were just doing it for the easy credit or to satisfy an elective; which was why she was surprised when someone from behind her said, “Hey, Michaela.”
Turning, she nearly collided with Kyle, a shy, nerdy kid from her school. Oh great. Of all the people… “Hi, Kyle.”
Hands in his pockets, feet shuffling nervously, Kyle said, “I didn’t think anyone else from class would be here.”
“Oh, um, yeah. I heard this guy was pretty good and it doesn’t hurt to get the extra credit, right? Besides, you’re here too.”
“Yeah,” said Kyle. “I kinda know the photographer. He took a picture of me and asked my permission to be included in the exhibit.”
“That’s pretty cool. Show me your picture.”
Kyle guided her over to a section of the display titled Isolation. Each photo, stunning in its simplicity; Breathtaking in the artist’s interpretation: A single flower growing out of a crack in the sidewalk; A lone leaf dangling from a bare branch; An elderly woman in a wheelchair staring blankly into space; A puppy slouched against the back of a cage, tail between his hind legs, head lowered, eyes pleading; A young man sitting on a park bench, elbows on his knees, head in his hands.
“Wow. These are pretty powerful. Where’s your picture?”
“That’s me,” he said timidly, pointing to the picture of the young man on the park bench. A sense of sadness washed over Michaela as she studied the photo for a minute. She was amazed at the photographer’s ability to capture such raw emotion.
“You look so sad. Do you remember what you were thinking when that picture was taken?”
Kyle shrugged and replied, “No, not really.” His facial expression and body language suggested otherwise. Michaela, sensing his unease, decided to let it go. “I like it. The photographer definitely captured your better side,” she said jokingly, looking to lighten the mood. Kyle smiled.
Lunch period was Michaela’s favorite part of her school day. She had just settled into her seat at the lunch table, surrounded by seven of her closest BFFs when Kyle approached the table. Not bothering to make eye contact with anyone other than Michaela, he simply said “hi.”
All conversation ceased. Seven sets of eyes zeroed in on Kyle who was smiling shyly at Michaela. Becca, the self-proclaimed leader, spoke first. “Did you get lost on the way to the loser’s table?” Ignoring Becca, he handed a newspaper clipping to Michaela. “I was just wondering if you wanted to check out this art show with me tomorrow night.”
Michaela was mortified. All her friends were staring at her, waiting to see how she would respond. She looked around at the expectant faces, and said, loud enough for everyone around their table to hear, “I’m busy. Why don’t you ask one of your loser friends?” As if on cue, the entire table of girls burst into laughter.
“Yeah, OK. Whatever,” said Kyle, as he shoved his hands in his pockets and quickly walked out of the cafeteria.
“OMG, what a loser,” screeched Becca, making sure she said it loud enough that Kyle heard it as he walked away. Michaela laughed along with her girlfriends, though she really didn’t think it was all that funny anymore.
“Come on, Becca. You didn’t have to be so mean.”
“What? He’s weird, Mic. Nobody likes him. Right guys?” said Becca looking around the table seeking confirmation. Like bobble heads, every girl nodded in unison.
Lunch period carried on. The Kyle incident was all but forgotten as the girls moved on to the next piece of gossip. Michaela, however, couldn’t quite dismiss the look on Kyle’s face as she humiliated him in front of everyone. Oh my God, she thought miserably to herself. I can’t believe I just did that.
Friday was pizza night at Michaela’s house. “Hey Mic,” said her dad as he finished off the last bite of crust. “Today’s paper had an article on the Newman Art Show going on downtown. Any interest in going?”
Michaela’s smile vanished. Her mom immediately picked up on the mood shift. “You’ve been talking about going for weeks. I thought you’d be more excited.”
Michaela’s eyes welled. “What’s wrong?” asked her mom, concern etched across her face.
“I did something yesterday at school that I’m not particularly proud of.”
Michaela’s parents exchanged worried looks. “Do you want to talk about it?” asked her mom.
Michaela sat stiffly in her chair, eyes downcast as she fidgeted with the corner of her napkin. “Do you remember that guy we bumped into at the library the other day? The one from my photography class?”
“Well, he came up to our lunch table yesterday to see if I wanted to go with him to that art show tonight.”
“And?” said her father, prompting her to continue.
“And… I don’t know. I guess I wasn’t very nice to him. I told him to ask one of his loser friends and we all just laughed at him. Even though he shrugged it off, I could tell he was really hurt when he walked away.”
“Oh, Honey. Why would you do something like that?”
“I don’t know.” She wiped away at the tears clinging to her lower lashes. “Everybody thinks he’s weird. And he embarrassed me in front of my friends.”
“How?” asked her dad. “By inviting you to an art show? Do you know how much courage it probably took for him to walk up to a whole group of girls to ask you?”
“I know. It’s just that I didn’t want my friend to think I was a loser too if I was seen talking to him.” She sat silently, gathering her thoughts. “I feel really bad about it.” Michaela said nothing else, fully deserving her mother’s admonishment.
“Your father and I raised you to be better than that.”
“Well, Michaela,” said her mom, “I certainly hope you apologized.”
“He wasn’t in school today, which made me feel even worse.” Michaela was trying really hard not to cry. She couldn’t shake the stark black and white image of Kyle looking so alone on that park bench from her mind. “What if I was the reason he decided to skip school?”
Though her parents’ disappointment still hung in the air, the remainder of their dinner continued with casual conversation about everyone’s day and weekend plans.
“Hey, mom?” Asked Michaela as she entered the kitchen carrying the dishes she had just cleared from the table.
“Do you think you can drive me somewhere tonight?”
Loading the dishwasher, Michaela’s mom looked up, cocked her right eyebrow and asked, “Where?”
“I was hoping you could take me to the art show. But first,” Michaela held up her hand, cutting off whatever her mom was about to say, “we need to make a pit stop.”
Michaela’s mom reached over and hugged her tightly. “I’m so proud of you.”
Kyle had just settled down on his bed, gearing up for a marathon video game night. Before he could situate his headphones, he heard a knock at his door. His mom poked her head in and said, “Kyle, there’s someone at the door for you. Says her name is Michaela.”
Kyle jumped out of bed, checked his hair in the mirror, straightened his shirt and nonchalantly descended the stairs to where Michaela was waiting.
“What do you want?” he said with as much disdain as he could muster.
Michaela was standing just inside the doorway, nervously twisting a ring on her finger. “My mom is taking me downtown to the art show and I wanted to see if you were still interested in going.”
“I thought you were busy.”
“Yeah. Um, I’m really sorry about what happened the other day at school.” Michaela shifted from one foot to other, waiting for Kyle to say something; anything. “Do you want to come or not?”
“Let me check with my mom. Hey, Mom, is it alright if…”
“Go! Have fun.”
As Michaela and Kyle walked out the front door together, she thought happily to herself, Oh my God, I can’t believe I just did that!