Prompt Images

The transmission crackled, the voices sounding like they were speaking from across decades rather than from the radio station a few blocks away. It’s so near to Marlow that she can see the WMRV beacon flashing in the sky from her third story window, its red light ticking on and off, on and off, as if it has its own pulse, as if it’s alive.

Radio had always been a comfort for her, offering background noise to her favorite childhood memories.

Marlow can remember running outside at her grandparents’ cottage, thick blades of grass sprouting up between her toes with each springy step. Five miles outside of town, the cottage offered a quiet that never found her maple-lined street, and an indigo sky rarely marred by gray clouds or light pollution, but always teeming stars, so many that it seemed like the sky was a sieve, its pores radiating cosmic light. No matter if she and her sister, Mirabelle, were playing tag, or tracing Heracles’ limbs in the sky, the radio hummed alongside them, playing Van Morrison, The Mamas & The Papas, and Jose Feliciano.

“These are the tunes of a bygone era,” the Chicago disc jockey, Bianca Black, announced at the top of each hour, as if it was her tagline.

“What does bygone mean?” Marlow asked her dad when she was four. She watched him laugh, scraping his fingers through his scruffy beard, the hair the color of the charcoal in the grill they roasted s’mores over.

“That I’m getting old,” he said. They all were, even if Marlow didn’t realize it at the time. A texting driver snatched him away unceremoniously from Marlow and her family eight years later. Now, whenever she heard “Harvest Moon,” she thought of him, the memory wrapped in the bitter and sweet.

Far from the cottage and the time she would describe as her bygone era, Marlow lies across her living room rug, the design of a toucan at her shoulder and a palm leaf at her knee. She spins the tuner on her radio, an old wooden-box style with oval-shaped slats carved into its side for speakers, a radio dial that looked like it was modeled after a speedometer in an old Chevy. At 70 years old, it’s seen better days, and she could afford another if she chose, but its glowing dial and the slight muffle of the sound has endeared her to it, reminding her that some things do last.

In her rapid scan of the frequencies, Marlow catches chatter and music in snippets, searching  not for a song, but an answer. A sign.

In their teens, Marlow and Mirabelle liked to play a game with the radio they had gleaned from TV. Rather than using a Magic 8 Ball to find guidance or solutions, they would turn the radio tuner, rotating it one way and then another as they asked a question: Does Kaila like me? Will I fail my history test? Should I get that sparkly silver tank top at Macy’s? Is there a heaven? Will we make it through this?

Marlow wasn’t sure where the game originated exactly, if the show was its first appearance, but she liked to believe that it had been around as long as the radio itself, and back in the early 1900s, women in their corsets and floor-length skirts would sit around their gigantic radio set and ask it to be their fortune teller. She imagines them throughout the lifetime of this very radio—women in their cigarette pants, and mini skirts, bell bottoms and Doc Martens, each searching for their own answers, different but oh so similar.

In moments of solitude, those ghosts of her radio’s past make Marlow feel less alone, and that despite the fact she feels unmoored, like a speck on the wind of history, she is woven into the fabric of humanity, connected to the people before her, and those who will come after.

“Should we move to Minneapolis?” Marlow asks just before her hand stills, the silvers of sound becoming whole in a song.

“…leaving on a midnight train to Georgia…”

Marlow purses her lips, unsatisfied with her answer. “Don’t have the money for that,” she murmurs, as Gladys Knight continues to croon.

“…I’d rather live in his world, than live without him in mine…”

“Let’s try this again.” Marlow gives the wheel another turn, spinning it at least three times per her and Mirabelle’s rule. “Should I take the job?”

She stops again, landing on another familiar Tears for Fears melody. …I can’t stand this indecision, married with a lack of vision…”

Marlow gawks.

Yes, it’s a stupid game, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t offended when it offers up an answer that seems like a dig.

Maybe a well-deserved one, too, because her mind, rife with uncertainty, has yet to materialize any solid plans. Where she needs detailed blueprints, she has sparse pencil shadings.

A new job, a chance at a new start with more money, more freedom; those should be good things for her, for them.

And they are. But they also come with stress—learning curves and moving checklists and apartment hunting and school transfers. Even harder is that leaving here means leaving behind leaving the literal touchpoints of her bygone era, and Marlow isn’t sure she can take saying goodbye to them when she’s said goodbye to so much.

“So that’s how we’re playing it tonight, huh?” Marlow murmurs, fully aware that she’s talking to an inanimate object. If this was the first time it happened, she would have to question the true state of her mental health, but as this conversation is frequent, she pays no mind to it. She draws up a new query instead, one that is more general and hopefully easier for the radio gods to answer. “Will we be okay?”

Releasing the knob, she listens.

“…Truth hurts, needed something more exciting… Bom bom bi dom bi dum bum bay!”

“Oh come on! Don’t give me this bullshit,” Marlow huffs. This is the peril of looking for signs over radio waves. Many times, they don’t make sense.

“Whoa, don’t disrespect Lizzo like that. She is our queen.” From the hall strides in Mirabelle, dressed in her pajamas—flannel shorts and her St. Louis sweatshirt, bearing the image of the great Gateway Arch—her ice blonde hair pulled into a top knot.

“Myka okay?” Marlow asks of their little brother. Myka was just two when their dad passed away, coming to realize that he was their father’s spitting image only through photos. When he was nine, Mom left too, except she didn’t die, it just felt like she had. Ever since, Marlow had custody of him and Mirabelle.

At 19, the dreams she had for herself had to rearrange to fit the needs and hopes of two others, too.

“Yeah. Just frustrated with algebra. He’ll get it,” Mirabelle said, sprawling out on the floor beside Marlow, her socks aligned with Marlow’s shoulders. “The old magic radio being withholding again?”

“It’s being a little shit, that’s for sure.”

“Let me try. Maybe it doesn’t like your energy.” Mirabelle pushed herself onto her elbow and reached across Marlow to the radio. “What’s the question?”

“I have like ten.”

Mirabelle rolls her eyes, the light of the dial catching the golden flecks in her irises. “Start with one. The one you just asked.”

Marlow exhales with the force of a slow leak. “Are we going to be okay?”

“Okay. Radia, goddess of all radios, please answer our plea: will we be okay?”

Mirabelle gives the knob a spin but before it makes it a full rotation, it falls into her palm, the socket split, cracking like thin ice. Fittingly, the dial has landed on a station of white noise, and for a few seconds, as they stare at the piece in horror, neither Mirabelle or Marlow add to it.

“Well if that’s not a sign, I don’t know what is,” Mirabelle says, agog.

“What’s the sign? That you’re the Hulk?” Marlow says, and although it’s just a radio, she feels the burn of salt water in her eyes. “How did you just snap that?

“No, I don’t—”

“Or is the sign that we’re heading for a breakdown? Maybe that we have the worst luck? Probably both?” Worst may have been pushing it, but when Marlow’s blood feels like it has been more adrenaline than platelet lately, her emotions are heightened, including her propensity for drama.

“Okay, calm down. Number one, I’m sorry, but I barely put any pressure on it, so no, I’m not the Hulk. It’s just old. Number two, it can be fixed. It’s not that bad of a break. I’ll get some superglue and it will be fine. Number three, maybe the sign is that we have to stop relying on someone else for the answer and come up with it ourselves.” Mirabelle kicks Marlow with the tips of her llama-socked toes. “I know you’re amped up about all of this, but Mykah and I, we trust you. Listen to your gut. What do you want to do? What do you think is best?”

Flopping back on the floor, Marlow covers her face with her hands, and tries to take a breath and focus, something that has been eluding her as of late, and by late, she means for years.

What should I do? What is best?

The answer presents itself relatively quickly, but then again to say it’s presenting itself would imply that it hasn’t been there the whole time and she hasn’t been actively ignoring it. Really, if she hadn’t been so focused on the fear, she would’ve seen it as the sole decision. If her dream has been to make a better life for her, Mirabelle, and Mykah, this was the way forward.

“Minneapolis, here we come,” she says, and it is only then she realizes that maybe the Lizzo song was a sign all along.

Sarah Razner

Sarah Razner is a reporter of real-life Wisconsin by day, and a writer of fictional lives throughout the world by night.

learn more
Share this story
About The Prompt
A sweet, sweet collective of writers, artists, podcasters, and other creatives. Sound like fun?
Learn more