In which Cleo has nothing left to lose
Cleo stared at the bank app on her phone screen, praying for a miracle in which her balance would develop a few more zeroes. The number stubbornly stayed at seventy-three dollars. Well, and a few cents, but those cents wouldn’t matter when her rent came due in a week and there was no paycheck to deposit.
She’d expected to find a new job quickly when the factory for which she’d been a shift supervisor had gone out of business. Except in the current economy, factories were cutting back, rather than hiring. And that was only if they weren’t also closing their doors. Prospects were dim and her bank balance even dimmer.
Her employment insurance had run out four months ago. Despite being careful with her money, she’d gone through her meager savings and now all she had was that seventy-three dollars. What in the world was she going to do? Cleo buried her head in her hands, shutting out reality, if only for a moment.
The thought of moving home filled her with dread. Her father had never been easy to get along with. She had only gone to work at the factory to please him rather than pursuing the career she really wanted. And now that the factory job no longer existed, he’d find some way to blame her unemployment on her as well.
Cleo remembered the day she’d told him she wanted to be a photographer. He’d actually sneered at her.
“Why would you waste your time at something stupid like that? There’s no security and no benefits.”
Well, she sure as hell had neither of those now, despite following Dad’s advice. And here she was, unemployed, broke, and about to be homeless. Thanks, Dad.
Cleo wandered into the bedroom and dug into the back for her camera bag. She hadn’t used her camera in a few years—not since her father had humiliated her at a family gathering, pointing at a double exposure image she had been proud of and telling everyone she couldn’t even remember to advance the film between shots.
She held the camera gently, her fingers remembering each button, the familiar weight, the way she had always felt at one with it. Before. Before…It didn’t matter. She’d have to sell it.
As Cleo exited her apartment building heading to the camera store she used to frequent, tears stung her eyes. Was Joe still the owner? Would he give her a good price for the camera he had sold to her when she was sixteen? He had given her a part time job to help her save the money to pay for it but had given the camera to her immediately so she could start using it. He had taught her most of what she knew.
She forced herself through the shop door. Joe stood with a customer, showing them the workings of a videocam. His eyes lit up and he smiled as he noticed her, then a crease formed between his eyebrows. Cleo tried to smile back. He didn’t need to know how bad things were. Though he’d know the second she asked him to buy back her camera.
While she waited for Joe to finish with the customer, she wandered around the store. The bulletin board at the back was new. She started reading postings. A lot of people were trying to sell used equipment. Maybe Joe wouldn’t be in the market.
Cleo had just decided to leave when her eyes caught on a poster. The museum was holding a photo contest and the first prize was two thousand dollars! That kind of money could tide her over for another couple of months. The deadline was in two days and entries would be judged the following day.
The wheels started to turn in Cleo’s head. Maybe she could get her landlord to wait for the rent. Her shoulders slumped as reality crashed in. She hadn’t taken a photograph in nearly three years. And even if she did get some okay shots, she wouldn’t win. She was just delaying the inevitable.
“The contest looks fun.”
Cleo jumped at Joe’s voice behind her. “Yeah,” she said, turning to face him with a weak attempt at a smile.
“I heard what happened with your dad,” Joe said. “He was wrong. You’re a talented photographer. You could have made it professionally.”
“Yeah, well, he was wrong about more than that.”
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“I heard about the factory too. Sorry that didn’t work out for you. Have you found another job?” Neither Joe’s tone nor look suggested he thought it likely. Everyone knew how scarce jobs were right now.
“No. And I’m down to my last few dollars. I’m going to have to move home.” Cleo winced at the admission. “And I need to sell my camera. Do you know anyone who’s looking to buy?”
“No. And I don’t think you should sell it.” Joe led Cleo over to the counter.
“But I can’t make rent next week.” Cleo hated the whine in her voice. She felt like a teenager again.
“Yes, you can. I’m going lend you the money and you’re going to enter that contest.”
“I can’t take your money, Joe. And besides, I wouldn’t win and if I did, I’d be right back where I started when that money ran out.”
Joe’s eyes crinkled in that smile Cleo remembered so well. “Well, I’d be lending the money to you as an advance against future paychecks. I can’t pay much, but it would be enough to keep you on your feet until you could find something better.”
Cleo’s heart leapt at the chance, then plummeted. “I haven’t taken a photo since…”
“But you haven’t forgotten how.” There was that crinkle again. “Do it for me. Make an old man happy.”
Cleo couldn’t believe her luck as she walked home with a check to cover rent and groceries for a month along with a few rolls of film Joe had thrown in as a welcome back gift. She had forgotten how generous he was. She had forgotten a lot of things over the last few years, including how much she loved taking pictures.
As she walked, she sought out picture-worthy subjects, seeing a number of possibilities. But there were only so many things to take pictures of in town and everyone would be snapping the most noteworthy.
To hell with it, she thought. I’m going to do my own thing. Even if Dad doesn’t believe in me, Joe does. And he knows photography better than Dad does.
Cleo picked her subjects, almost at random, letting her intuition guide her shots that day and again the next. Joe, who had said she could start work after submitting her photo to the contest, let her use his equipment to develop her photos.
As Cleo pored over the pictures, her eyes kept coming back to one she had shot near the beginning of the day. It was too risky, she shouldn’t. And yet she couldn’t bring herself to remove it from the array before her. She winnowed the pile down one photograph at a time, and, in the end, it was the only one remaining.
Shaking her head at her own folly, Cleo filled out the paperwork and hand-delivered her entry to the museum. On the walk home she cursed herself for every sort of a fool. There was no way she was going to win with that picture. This town was just too conservative. Like her dad.
The next day, Cleo reported to Joe’s camera store for her first day of work after an almost non-existent sleep. She had spent the night alternating between loving her photograph and beating herself up for submitting it. Not wanting to seem ungrateful for all Joe had done for her, she pretended to share his excitement, forcing down the cupcake he handed her to celebrate.
“I haven’t won yet,” she said through a mouthful of chocolate icing. He still remembered her favorite.
“But you will.”
Where Joe’s confidence in her sprung from, Cleo had no idea. But his kindness was more than she deserved. She closed her mind off to any further thought of the contest and went to the back of the store to see if any printing jobs had come in. The work came back to her quickly and she was soon absorbed in the daily tasks of the camera store.
Cleo jumped when her phone buzzed in her pocket. She pulled it out and stared at the screen. It was the museum’s number. Hands shaking, she pressed answer.
“Cleo Barnes?” a woman’s voice inquired.
“Yes?” Cleo’s voice shook almost as much as her hands. “Can I help you?”
“I’m Liz Kittring.”
The Liz Kittring? The woman whose work was featured in some of the best nature magazines in the world?
“And I’m calling to tell you that your photograph has taken first place in our contest.”
Cleo slid to the floor, her back against the wall. She couldn’t believe it. “But…”
“This is the most beautiful triple-exposure I’ve ever seen. You’ll have to show me your techniques.”
Cleo didn’t know how to respond. Not only had she won the contest, but Liz Kittring was asking her to show her how she’d created the image.
“Maybe you’d like to add this and a few other pictures to a collection I’m putting together for a book I’m writing. I’d pay you, of course.”
Cleo stammered something in response. She was pretty sure she’d said yes. The only thing she knew for sure was that Liz had asked her to come by the museum tomorrow to pick up her winnings and to attend the opening of the showing of all of the photographs submitted to the contest. She was to be the guest of honor and could bring a guest. She knew exactly who that would be. Hanging up the phone, she looked up to see Joe’s questioning look.
“I won. And you need a haircut and to get out your best suit. We’ve got a date.”
And here’s the winning image:
I decided to do something different with this one. I used ChatGPT (from Open AI) to provide a prompt. The one it gave me seemed to fit with the first image I used and I created the second, triple exposure, specifically for the story.
The prompt was to write a flash fiction story in which a young woman starts out despondent and ends up ecstatic about a major event in her life.
I’m happy to report that Cleo continues to work for Joe while pursuing a growing photography career. She could probably leave her job at the shop but says she would miss her days with Joe too much. Besides, he gives her all the time off she needs to travel to exotic locales.