Please Read

For the third round of our contest, we asked you to send us original works of fiction inspired by this photograph.


An open newspaper on a cafe table i i
Robb Hill/Robb Hill Photo
An open newspaper on a cafe table
Robb Hill/Robb Hill Photo

Round Three Winner: This short story by Rhonda Strickland won the third round of our Three-Minute Fiction contest. For more stories, visit the Three-Minute Fiction page.

In Tucson, we found the train-hopping kids, and went with them to New York City. I was 15 and had never been out of Arizona. That summer, I'd learned to eat from Dumpsters, carry a knife in my pocket and sleep with my backpack chained to my waist. My girlfriend Sarah was scared to try, but when she saw I'd go without her, she came. New Mexico and Texas floated past, framed in the open rail car door. We slept under a Baton Rouge bridge, partied in New Orleans, changed trains in Atlanta. Sarah was liking this now. At Penn Station, we stepped outside, and the cold stung our skin. We stood there and blinked. The other kids headed round back of a coffee shop to Dumpster dive. Sarah called to me. I shook my head, and she went. I knew she'd bring back something — a stale doughnut, a still-warm half-cup of coffee. In the shop window, I studied my reflection. Wild red hair stuck out from knots Sarah couldn't untangle with her broken comb. My eyes seemed too large and staring. My beard still looked strange. I thought of Phoenix. I'd left home over a month ago, telling no one. I hugged myself, shivering. We'd have to find coats, sweaters. I stopped seeing myself, and looked through the glass, at a warm table with a spread-open newspaper, carelessly left behind. The pages fluttered each time a customer opened the door and went in. Sarah came up beside me, handed over a half-eaten apple. She said, "No coffee." Her hands were blue. She followed my gaze. "We'll get newspapers tonight." She meant for sleeping. Old papers were everywhere, littering the ground under bridges, inside doorways, beside creeks and riverbeds. We stuffed our clothes and covered ourselves when it rained. She said, "Come on, Ben," but I couldn't stop looking at the newspaper, how people walked past, ruffling the pages, not noticing. The paper danced in the draft they created, and inched across the table, moving close to the edge. Sarah tugged my arm and looked anxiously at the Tucson kids rounding a corner, searching for food. I didn't know how to explain to Sarah I wanted this paper. I wasn't thinking of Phoenix anymore, of my home and my parents. I wanted to fold this newspaper shut with a crease, protect it from the gray sooty day, keep it from falling to the floor, where it would soon get covered in black shoe prints. But I could not get myself to go in, take it from the table. In its perfect frame of polished wood and gleaming glass, lit by lamps and the glowing smiles of people sipping coffee from steaming china cups, I knew the paper wasn't mine.

Three-Minute Fiction Round Three: The Winner Is ...

An open newspaper on a cafe table i i

Round 3 winner Rhonda Strickland says she found photographer Robb Hill's image of a lonely newspaper seen through a plate-glass window to be particularly inspiring. "I don't think I would have written the story if it hadn't been that particular photo," she says. Robb Hill/Robb Hill Photo hide caption

itoggle caption Robb Hill/Robb Hill Photo
An open newspaper on a cafe table

Round 3 winner Rhonda Strickland says she found photographer Robb Hill's image of a lonely newspaper seen through a plate-glass window to be particularly inspiring. "I don't think I would have written the story if it hadn't been that particular photo," she says.

Robb Hill/Robb Hill Photo

It's the moment we've all been waiting for. Time to announce the winner of Round 3 of our Three-Minute Fiction contest!

Stories poured in from all over the country — stories about cafes and trains from London to Maine. There were lost loves and lost newspapers, detectives on stakeout, and racetrack bums looking to make one last big score.

More than 3,000 stories came in for this round, and we couldn't have gotten through them all without the invaluable assistance of our friends at the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

But our judge for this round, writer and All Things Considered book critic Alan Cheuse, could only pick one, and his choice was "Please Read" by Rhonda Strickland, from Raleigh, N.C. It's a poignant tale of homeless teenage train-hoppers, outsiders looking in at a newspaper that could be just as useful for warmth and shelter as for information.

Runners-up were "Mint Julep" by Garvin Gaston of Houston, and "Surfaces" by Peggy Hansen of Boulder Creek, Calif.

Cheuse tells NPR's Guy Raz that several things stood out for him about Strickland's winning story. "It's in a man's voice," he says, "so she's daring herself to do that." And while many of our Three-Minute authors used the photo as a jumping-off point, starting their stories at the table with the newspaper, Strickland's characters were traveling toward it — which Cheuse says he found interesting.

Most importantly, Cheuse says, the story met the goal he laid out at the start of the contest: It "predicates" a life, giving the fullest idea of the character in the shortest length of time. "You can just feel the life boiling up out of these lines."

Strickland is an artist and writer, retired now after 10 years of teaching English to college students. In an interesting coincidence, she herself once took a class from Alan Cheuse, more than 20 years ago, though Cheuse says he remembers only her name and her red hair.

Strickland says she found photographer Robb Hill's image of a lonely newspaper seen through a plate-glass window to be particularly inspiring. "I don't think I would have written the story if it hadn't been that particular photo," she says.

"It immediately made me feel like an outsider, and I just had no impulse to put myself inside the shop, like reading the paper or the person who left the paper." Strickland says she often visits her brother in Tucson, Ariz., and during one visit she discovered a subculture of teenagers who rode the rails. She combined that knowledge with the inspiration from our photo for her winning story.

Strickland wins a signed copy of Alan Cheuse's novel To Catch the Lightning: A Novel of American Dreaming, and a signed printout of his story "A Little Death."

And while this round of Three-Minute Fiction is over, the next round is just about ready to begin, with new guest judge Ann Patchett and a brand new challenge. Stay tuned!

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