Writing Dialogue for Screenplays

Writing Dialogue for Screenplays - student project

It's been a while since this class was published, but I thought I'd participate in the project anyway. It seems like good practice – and fun. I'm going to try and do all the prompts.

Apologies for the wonky formatting. Skillshare isn't ideal for sharing something in screenwriting format. 

Going through the exercises, I realized I needed more context. I needed to hear and feel the characters before I could give them words – or sense the words they wanted to say. For reference, I've added "Context" and a genre to each. 

All feedback welcome!

 

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Conflict Scenario 1

A security guard wants to search a mother’s stroller in the belief that she has stolen something. 

Genre: Drama

Context: Mother seems poor. Guard is sympathetic, but is new on the job and needs the work. Guard saw the mother take a 99 cent toy from the clearance rack, but didn’t see her pay for it. Guard notices the manager, who is busy with another customer, is eyeing the mother suspiciously. Guard is trying to intercept, retrieve the toy, and help the mother leave without further incident before the manager comes over. Guard knows if the mother pushes the stroller through the door a hidden sensor will trigger an alarm which will certainly get the manager’s attention.

 

INT. GROCERY STORE - DAY

 

                                             SECURITY GUARD

                                     (pleasantly)

                           Good morning, ma’am.

 

Mother looks up from the stroller.

 

                                               MOTHER

                                     (startled)

                           Wha -- uh... g’mornin’. 

                                               SECURITY GUARD

                           How old’s your kid? I’ve got a little girl at home who looks about his age.

                                               MOTHER

                           Oh... this Pete. He’ll be two tomorrow.

 

Security guard squats down to greet Pete.

 

                                               SECURITY GUARD

                           Wow! Big boy, Pete! Got a birthday coming up, huh?

                                               MOTHER

                           Yeah, he gettin’ big. 

                                     (beat)

                           Thanks for sayin’ hi. 

 

Guard begins to lift edge of blanket covering Pete’s legs.

 

                                               SECURITY GUARD

                           Looks like Pete’s got something there.

 

Mother jerks Pete’s stroller and moves to walk past guard in the narrow aisle.

 

                                               MOTHER

                           Naw, he ain’t got nothin’. We need to get going though. ‘Xcuse me. 

                                               SECURITY GUARD

                           You sure? I thought I saw something.

                                               MOTHER

                           I said he ain’t got nothin’. 

                                               SECURITY GUARD

                                     (patiently and smiling)

                           Well, let’s just make sure. Things fall off these old racks all the time, you know?

                                               MOTHER

                           Da hell. You deaf?! Ain’t nothin’ there. You a creep or somthin’? Move out my way. 

                                               SECURITY GUARD

                           Hey, I -- I just want to  make sure nothing fell off the rack into Pete’s ride. That’s all.

                                               MOTHER

                           Nothin’ fell. He’s fine. Move.

                                               SECURITY GUARD

                           OK, ok... 

                                     (lowers voice)

                           I saw you, alright? 

                                     (beat)

                           I don’t want you to be embarrassed, but if I don’t --

                                               MOTHER

                           Saw me what?!

                                               SECURITY GUARD

                                     (straightens up, flatly)

                           Come on.

                                               MOTHER

                           Naw, saw me what? You ain’t seen nothin’. 

                                               SECURITY GUARD

                           In the other aisle. I saw you tuck the toy under Pete’s blanket. So let me jus --

                                               MOTHER

                           You think I wanna steal one of them stupid toys? Them cheap things chokin’ hazards. Y’all be tryin’a kill kids up in here. 

                                               SECURITY GUARD

                           Ma’am, please. My manager was watching.

 

Mother looks over toward the manager who is eyeing the conversation while speaking with another customer.

 

                                               SECURITY GUARD

                           If you walk through that door, an alarm will go off and this day goes very differently for you and Pete.

 

Mother returns her attention to the guard, her look softening a bit.

 

                                               SECURITY GUARD

                           Why don’t you just let me swipe it from under Pete’s blanket and you both can enjoy the rest of your day. Only way this needs to go. 

 

Mother’s gaze hardens again.

 

                                               MOTHER

                                     (sharply)

                           I said move

                                     (beat)

                           We don’t need your help.

 

Mother pushes past the security guard and heads through the exit with Pete. Alarm sounds and the store manager rushes to intercept.

 

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Conflict Scenario 2

A delivery driver knocks on a retired police officer’s door and wants to hide in her house for five minutes.  

Genre: Comedy

Context: Delivery driver works gigs for DoorDash. He thinks he’s being followed. He’s a bit paranoid. The retired officer has a deadpan personality. She’s seen it all, especially in this neighborhood full of nuts. Today, she just wants to eat her delivered ramen and enjoy her afternoon.

 

EXT. RETIRED POLICE OFFICER'S HOME - FRONT PORCH - DAY

 

DELIVERY DRIVER stumbles to the front door shooting glances over his right shoulder. He knocks hard three times, waits half a second and then knocks four times even harder. 

 

RETIRED POLICE OFFICER responds from inside. 

 

                                             RETIRED POLICE OFFICER

                                     (O.S.)

                           Okay, okay. Geez...

 

Retired Police Officer opens the door.

 

                                             RETIRED POLICE OFFICER

                           So that’s what that feels like.

                                             DELIVERY DRIVER

                                     (breathlessly)

                           Hey. Sorry. I’ve got your Rad Ramen order here. If -- if you just let me step inside we can take care of the receipt.

                                             RETIRED POLICE OFFICER

                           That’s OK. I paid ahead. We’re all set.

 

Retired Police Officer reaches for the bag. Delivery Driver pulls it back to his chest. 

 

                                             DELIVERY DRIVER

                           Ri -- right, but, uh. You know. Us drivers live on tips, so...

                                             RETIRED POLICE OFFICER

                           You aint kiddin’. My niece drives for your company downtown. She could hardly put gas in that car if it weren’t for the tips. 

                                     (smiling)

                           Left you a nice one in the app. 

                                             DELIVERY DRIVER

                           Oh, uh -- thanks, but, um...

 

Delivery Driver looks over his shoulder to the corner of the street.

 

                                             RETIRED POLICE OFFICER

                                     (beat)

                           That ramen isn’t getting any warmer.  Mind if I go eat?

                                             DELIVERY DRIVER

                           Of course! Of course. Uh...

                                     (looks back at Retired Police Officer)

                           It’s just this stupid policy, you know. W -- we get lots of complaints. Dropped food. Refunds. It’s a mess. So I just need to...

 

Delivery Driver takes half a step forward, placing a foot inside the open door.

Retired Police Officer looks down at the intruding limb. Head still down, her eyes return to meet the Delivery Driver’s.

 

                                             RETIRED POLICE OFFICER

                           Aw, you don’t like that one?

                                             DELIVERY DRIVER

                           What?

                                             RETIRED POLICE OFFICER

                           The foot you’re about to lose.

 

Delivery Driver quickly retracts his foot. He didn’t realize he’d extended it.

 

                                             DELIVERY DRIVER

                           Oh! Sorry. Um...

 

He shoots another quick look to the corner. Retired Police Officer raises her head and follows his gaze. Looking to the corner she spots a lone car idling.

Looking back at one another again.

 

                                             DELIVERY DRIVER

                           Really, it’ll just take a sec, miss. Five minute, tops.

                                             RETIRED POLICE OFFICER

                                     (leans forward, hushed tone)

                           You know, I don’t think that’ll be long enough.

                                             DELIVERY DRIVER

                           Long enough?

                                             RETIRED POLICE OFFICER

                                     (gestures to the corner)

                           For the car that’s coming to lose interest and keep moving.

 

As the Delivery Driver quickly looks to the lone car, which hasn’t moved, the Retired Police Officer snatches the bag of food from his hands and slams the door shut.

 

                                             RETIRED POLICE OFFICER

                                     (O.S.)

                           Enjoy the tip!

 

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Conflict Scenario 3

A teenager wants to borrow their parents’ car for the weekend.  

Genre: Drama

Context: Teen lives alone with her Dad. They joke, but she doesn’t doubt he loves her. She’s not so sure about God, though. She’s coming into her own story, forging and owning her own faith, and she’s got more questions than confidence. More hurt than hope. She wants clarity and has it in her mind that this weekend gathering of teens like her may be where she’ll find it. 

 

INT. KITCHEN - MORNING

DAD sits on a stool at the counter. He’s enjoying his tea and reading on a tablet. 

TEEN enters at speed. She’s on a mission.

 

                                             TEEN

                           Dad, I want to borrow the car.

                                             DAD

                           What for?

                                             TEEN

                           It’ll just be a day or two.

                                             DAD

                           For this weekend thing you mean. 

                                             TEEN

                           I didn’t say that.

                                             DAD

                           You didn’t not. 

                                             TEEN

                           Dad. Don’t be difficult.

                                             DAD

                           Okay. No. That easy for you?

                                             TEEN

                           This is important, Dad.

                                             DAD

                           I bet.

                                             TEEN

                           It’s going to be a time of discovery and self reflection.

                                             DAD

                           Cool. Mirror’s in your room. Have a look. All weekend if you like. Don’t even need directions.

                                             TEEN

                           C’mon, Dad. You want me to go to this weekend thing.

                                             DAD

                           That right?

                                     (slides tablet aside and sits up)

                           Enlighten me.

                                             TEEN

                           Well. I mean... 

                                             DAD

                           Compelling so far.

                                             TEEN

                           Jillian is going.

                                             DAD

                           Poor Jillian. Must have one of those mirrorless bedrooms.

                                             TEEN

                           I know you want me to spend more time with her. Learn from her. You know, discipleship or something.

                                             DAD

                           Way to sell it, kiddo.

                                             TEEN

                           I’m just saying, if I had the car for the weekend, we could talk and stuff. On the way.

                                             DAD

                           Just a couple of teen girls. Car, weekend, talking and stuff. How could I say “no?”

                                             TEEN

                           You’re going to say no.

                                             DAD

                           Yeah, no.

 

Returns his attention to the tablet on the counter.

 

                                             TEEN

                           Dad!

                                             DAD

                           Present.

                                             TEEN

                                     (drops head; two full beats)

                           I’m your daughter...

                                             DAD

                           Mmm, results of the paternity were inconclusive.

                                             TEEN

                           I am your child...

                                             DAD

                           Honestly, it’s debatabl --

                                             TEEN

                           If I’m good enough for you, why does God reject me?

                                             DAD

                                     (looks up from tablet; half a beat)

                           Oh, hon --

                                             TEEN

                           Why doesn’t He answer me?

                                     (long beat)

                           Why’d He let Mom go?

 

Teen angrily wipes her eye, straightens, and looks squarely at her Dad.

 

                                             TEEN

                                     (sternly)

                           I need to go this weekend. I need to go and... figure that out.

                                             DAD

                                     (beat)

                           Key is in my coat. Charge up before you head out. We’ll talk when you’re back.

 

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Conflict Scenario 4

Invent your own goal and obstacle conflict scene.

A career criminal attends an arranged meeting with his boss and wants to know what’s going on.

Genre: Crime Drama

Context: A couple of guys attend an arrange a meeting to resolve an unknown matter with an associate. One of them has a handle on the situation and owns the plan. The other is in the dark and increasingly unsettled about the scenario. Nothing about it makes sense to him, especially when an unexpected party shows up. 

I wrote this dialogue many weeks before this exercise and thought it would fit this class with some refinements.

 

INT. RESTAURANT - EVENING

Two men sit across from each other at a round table with seats for four. White table cloth, fine cutlery, and a tuxedoed wait staff surround them in this softly lit establishment. 

Most of the guests sport high fashion evening attire making the two men appear out of place in their off-the-rack button-down shirts, clearance chinos, and BOGO dress shoes.

ONE is calm and collected. He sits facing the room, is enjoying his wine, and occasionally looks at his smartphone. TWO, in contrast, seems unsettled, frequently shifting in his seat and surveilling the room. 

 

                                             ONE

                           Hey, here’s five dollars. 

                                             TWO

                           What am I supposed to do with this?

                                             ONE

                           Get yourself something. 

                                             TWO

                           Here?

                                             ONE

                           Yeah.

                                             TWO

                           Think it costs 20 times this just to  order one of them tingly waters.

                                             ONE

                           A hundred dollars? We’re not that fancy. 

                                             TWO

                           No, we ain’t. Look, I don’t want anything, except maybe to know what we’re doing here. 

                                             ONE

                           What, you don’t like it?

                                             TWO

                           Like what?

                                             ONE

                           Here. You don’t like it here? 

                                             TWO

                           I don’t even know where here is.

                                     (half a beat)

                           Where the hell are we?

                                             ONE

                           Where we need to be. Just relax. She’ll be here soon.

                                             TWO

                           She better. Any minute someone’s gonna notice we’re sittin’ where we don’t belong.

                                             ONE

                           We have just as much right. 

                                             TWO

                           Right we got. Clout we don --

 

Two looks up in surprise as a woman, FOUR, approaches their table accompanied by a Host. Four is silky, appropriately dressed for the establishment, and moves with the grace of a predatory cat.

 

                                             FOUR

                                     (flatly)

                           Gentlemen.

                                             TWO

                                     (half stands)

                           The hell are you doin’ here?!

 

Four slides into a seat with the help of the Host. She smiles at the handsome man’s kindness as he pushes in her chair and leaves the table.

 

                                             ONE

                           Relax. Sit down. I invited her.

                                             TWO

                                     (lowering to his chair)

                           YOU invited her?! Why? 

                                             ONE

                           It’s better she’s here. 

                                             TWO

                           How?! How’s it better she’s here?

                                             FOUR

                           You might ask me.

                                             TWO

                                     (annoyed)

                           How’s it better you’re here?

                                             FOUR

                           You know how. This gathering goes a little differently without me... Here... At this table.

                                     (half a beat; feels table cloth; distracted)

                           Is this guanaco?

                                             TWO

                                     (turns to One; urgently)

                           Man, what are we doing here?

                                             ONE

                           C’mon. 

                                             TWO

                           No. I thought I knew how this was gonna go. With her here now...

                                             FOUR

                                     (still examining tablecloth)

                           Hi.

                                             TWO

                                     (continues)

                           ...I don’t know what the hell this is.

                                             ONE

                           A conversation among friends.

                                     (beat)

                           About an unfriendly thing. That’s all.

                                             TWO

                           That ain’t all. 

                                     (looks toward Four)

                           Not with her.

                                             FOUR

                                     (smiles)

                           I’m fine. Super chill.

                                     (looks up from table cloth at Two)

                           Easy day.

                                             TWO

                           It better be. You tend to make a day hard.

                                             FOUR

                           Not today, gentlemen. Found something under a new leaf this morning. Made me look at things a little differently.

                                             TWO

                           Bloody leaf.

                                             FOUR

                           What?

                                             TWO

                           Must have left that smear on your arm.

 

Four slightly twists her wrist and finds a small streak of dried blood beneath her forearm. Concealing it, her face hardens.

 

                                             TWO

                           Yeah. You’re still who you are.

                                             ONE

                           Stow it. Both of you. 

                                     (beat)

                           Here she comes.

 

One gestures toward the host station. A woman is being escorted from the entrance toward their table.

 

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Action Scenario

Two students on a road trip have broken down at 2 AM in the middle of a forest. One wants to retrace their steps and walk back three miles to a house that had a light on. The other wants to take a risk and keep going forward on foot. 

Genre: Thriller

Characters:

BEC - Wants to be smart and go back to the lit house where she believes they'll be safe. She doesn't like that it's pitch black, they can't get a signal, and neither of them know how far it is to the next town or gas station.

FORZA - Wants to keep going forward. She's eager to make up time, thinks it's just a road with nothing to be afraid of, and doesn't want to waste time going backwards.

Actions:

  1. Suggest
  2. Persuade
  3. Enlighten
  4. Plead
  5. Accuse
  6. Guilt
  7. Manipulate
  8. Encourage
  9. Ask
  10. Pander

The above actions are all taken by the character Forza. The list starts at the line "Why don’t we just keep going?"

Thinking & Writing Soundtrack: Forest Edge | Nighttime Ambience | 10 Hours by KDeKay Sleep Sounds on YouTube while listening to the Coherence original motion picture soundtrack by Kristin Øhrn Dyrud on Apple Music.

 

(I write in Scrivener. But to work out my thinking, I jumped into a favorite app, Mural, and captured some context and actions. The photo is by Olena Sergienko on Unspalsh, which I heavily modified in Photoshop.)

 

EXT. FOREST - SIDE OF THE ROAD - DEAD OF NIGHT (2 AM)

A red, compact SUV sits in the shoulder of a narrow road. The car is dead, but the head and interior lights still work. It’s pitch black otherwise.

Twenty-one year old students, BEC and FORZA, are preparing to walk to find help. Bec stands looking into the open hatch at the back of the vehicle while FORZA leans into the open front door collecting her cell phone and water bottle. 

                                             BEC

                           You didn't pack the folding bike?

                                             FORZA

                           Do you see the size of your duffle in there?

 

Bec slams lid of the hatch.

 

                                             BEC

                           We're walking back to that house. 

                                             FORZA

                           Bec.

                                             BEC

                           The lights were on. They can help us call a wrecker or something. 

                                             FORZA

                           Why don’t we just keep going? I bet there’s a gas station right up the road.

                                             BEC

                           Forza, it’s mad dark. We can hardly see each other. Let’s just go back.

                                             FORZA

                           No, it’ll be fun. Like that midnight hike-n-hunt thing we did last year. With Aiden and Terrell? No different!

                                             BEC

                           Way different. They had guns. We don’t have guns. Unless you borrowed one and packed that instead of the bike I asked you to.

                                             FORZA

                           No... but that’s a good thing! I bet more accidents happen with firearms around than without, so we’ll be better off --

                                             BEC

                           Cut it out, Forza. We’re going back. 

                                             FORZA

                           Bec, come on.

                                     (half a beat)

                           I’m mean, can we just walk up the road for ONE mile? See what’s ahead...

                                     (soto voice)

                           ...before we go scurrying back to safety. 

                                             BEC

                                     (flatly)

                           Really?

                                             FORZA

                           I’m sorry, but, yeah. You let your anxieties run you, Bec. You can really ruin a good time.

                                             BEC

                           Wow. Nice. It’s a condition, genius. I don’t choose to be anxious.

 

Bec turns and begins briskly walking back down the road. Forza runs and stops her.

 

                                             FORZA

                           Hey, hey. I’m sorry. I know. It’s just sometimes ––

                                             BEC

                           Why are we even talking about this right now? The house is just a few miles back. Can we just go?

 

Bec steps around Forza and continues walking down the road.

 

                                             FORZA

                           I just... I just think it’s a good opportunity for you, Bec. To face your fears and get a win... You know?

 

Bec slows her brisk pace to a stop, but doesn’t turn around. 

 

                                             FORZA

                           I know it’s scary, but you can do this. WE can do this. 

                                             BEC

                           Forza...

 

Forza extends her hand offering it to her friend’s back.

 

                                             FORZA

                           Come on, Bec. Will you just try... for me?

                                     (beat)

                           One mile. Then we can turn back and head to that house if we don’t see anything. 

                                             BEC

                                     (mumbling)

                           Dammit. 

                                     (two beats; sternly)

                           ONE mile, Forza.

 

Bec turns and begins walking back toward Forza and the car at half the pace of before. 

Looking up and noticing Forza’s extended hand, Bec slaps it away as she passes her. 

 

                                             FORZA

                           I’m not holding your stupid hand.

 

Forza laughs, throws her arm around Bec’s neck which makes Bec squirm as the two trek forward, walking past the reach of the car’s headlights and into the darkness of the road ahead.

 

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 Tuesday, September 14, 2021

 

Subtext? Um...

Admittedly, this one's been tricky to get my head around. I understand what subtext is, but creating a scene that employs it stumped this screenwriting novice. 

The dialogue and scene are forthcoming, but I wanted to practice some openness and share where I am in my process. Once again, I give you Mural, my favorite tool for thinking...

 

 

It's hard to read, but what I'm exploring here is metaphor. Specifically, what washing dishes can be a metaphor for — a metaphor that would make the subtext detectable and meaningful.

I'm overthinking this, aren't I? Still, it's helped me better understand how to wield subtext. I think I'm ready to give the dialogue a try for this scenario. I'll add that soon.

 

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 Friday, September 17, 2021

 

Subtext Scene 1

A brother and sister had a house party while their parents were away. Since they returned [the parents] have realized some jewelry is missing. In this scene, their unsuspecting parents have left them to do the [dishes] while they sit just outside the window. 

Genre: Drama

Context: The siblings are twins and have different personalities. Dinah tends to be responsible and calculating. Nahdi tends to be adventurous and risk tolerant. The party was his idea, but his sister agreed  to it because she wants to be more daring.

Characters:

DINAH (sister) - Wants to talk and confess to the parents about the party, facing whatever the consequences.

NAHDI (brother) - Feels they've gotten away with it and doesn't want to talk. He figures the jewelry will go on as an unsolved mystery. No need to risk getting into trouble. 

Pre-written Subtext

                                             A

                           I want to talk to you.

                                             B

                           I don’t want to talk to you.

                                             A

                           I know you’ve been avoiding me.

                                             B

                           I want you to go away.

                                             A

                           We have to admit to what we did.

                                             B

                           You can get yourself into trouble if you want, but I’m not going to.

                                             A

                           If you don’t come with me when I confess, you will be in more trouble.

                                             B

                           This conversation is over.

                                             A

                           If you leave now I will make life difficult for you.

                                             B

                           Stop drawing attention to us. I will talk later.

                                             A

                           If you don’t, there will be consequences.

                                             B

                           I have understood you clearly. Now, go away.

 

NOTE: Admittedly, I struggled with this exercise. In hindsight, I think I buried the meaning of this subtext to far. I like the dialogue, but I think it misses the mark of the exercise. Cleaning the dishes ends up being more like a metaphor than the subject of code talk between these siblings. I'll try and shallow out the subtext in the next two scenarios. 

 

INT. KITCHEN - EVENING

DINAH and NAHDI, twins, age 17, sit at a small square table. As their parents make their way out of the back door to relax on the deck, both kids are looking at their phones. 

Over her shoulder, we see Dinah is closely examining photos of her friends on Facebook, zooming and panning as if looking for something. 

Across from her, Nahdi scrolls through messages and memes on Discord, occasionally snickering and typing.

Dinah peels herself away from her screen with a couple of hard blinks, refocusing her eyes. Placing her phone face down on the table, she looks to the mess of bowls, silverware, and glasses between her and her brother.

 

                                             DINAH

                           Alright. Let’s clean this up. Come on.

 

Stacking and picking up two bowls, Dinah rises from the table and half turns toward the sink behind her. She stops as she notices her brother hasn't moved.

 

                                             DINAH

                                     (with command)

                           Nahdi.

                                             NAHDI

                                     (still looking at phone)

                           Yeah... in a sec... Gimme a sec.

                                             DINAH

                           They’re not going to get any easier to scrub.

                                             NAHDI

                           So go on.

 

Dinah turns squarely to Nahdi who is still sitting.

 

                                             DINAH

                           I’m not doing them by myself! Can you please get up?!

                                             NAHDI

                           Wha –– 

                                     (looks past Dinah and gestures to the dishwasher behind her; continues)

                          Just put ‘em in the washer or whatever.

 

Nahdi returns his attention back to his phone screen.

 

                                             DINAH

                           If I stand there doing these dishes alone, I’m not keeping that to myself. 

                                             NAHDI

                           OK.

 

Nahdi gets up from the table and starts to walk out of the kitchen.

 

                                             DINAH

                                     (raised voice)

                           Nahdi! Come help or I swear you’ll be doing both our chores for the rest of your young life.

 

Nahdi stops and turns to look at his sister.

 

                                             NAHDI

                                     (flatly)

                           Dramatic. They’re applauding next door. 

                                     (beat)

                           Just leave half for me or something. I’ll do them later.

                                             DINAH

                           Don’t play.

 

Dinah steps closer to the sink. She separates and firmly places one of the two bowls in her hand on the counter to the left of the sink.

 

                                             DINAH (CONT'D)

                           I’m leaving them right here.

                                             NAHDI

                           Yeah, fine.

Nahdi turns and walks out of the kitchen, looking down at his phone again as he goes. 

Dinah leans back on the sink behind her, letting it take her weight. She stands in the kitchen alone, staring at the mess to be cleaned.

Turning to face the sink, Nahdi rests the other bowl inside. Raising her head, her gaze falls through the small window above the sink and lands on a view of her parents who are chatting on the deck just outside.

 

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