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For the thirtieth time, they pulled the book from its place on the shelf. He blew a year’s worth of dust from the cover before smiling at her and leading her to the sofa. They sank into the tired cushions, wiggling closer to each other as together they pried the cover open.
“Zero,” she said, as she always did. They stared up at themselves from the page, he in black, she in white. Smiles from the past reflected in the present. He turned the page and said, “One.”
More reflections. The backdrop of the church was replaced with a country scene, a river cutting through the greenery. This time she wore a pink blouse, he a blue shirt. Her hair was shorter. They clasped hands, both then and now, displaying the bands around their fingers. The ones in the photo were shockingly pristine compared with their tarnished, modern counterparts.
“Two.” So they continued. Page after page chronicled the transformation of present into memory. The faces smiling up at them, though perfect facsimiles from the start, somehow became truer, more familiar—and yet less at the same time. On “eighteen”, he thought for sure his head didn’t sport quite that much gray.
When they finally reached “twenty-nine”, he took a polaroid camera from the coffee table. There’d be no romantic background this year. Their health wasn’t what it used to be, and they both felt it was time for a quiet celebration at home. They huddled together, she resting her head on his shoulder as he held the camera out and snapped the photo.
When it was done, they both grasped the corner of the page. “Thirty,” she breathed. They turned the page.
He stared at it, blinking. She leaned forward for a closer look, the sofa creaking beneath her, before asking, “Did you put it there?”
In the center of the page, in the sleeve that should have been waiting emptily for memory number thirty, was another photo.
He shook his head in answer to her.
“I don’t even remember taking this,” she said. “Who do you suppose that is?”
It was a picture of some rural road. Dirt crept up through the cracked remnants of pavement. Trees crowded against one side while an overgrown field spread out from the other. On the far right of the photo, barely in frame so it seemed to have slipped in by mistake, was a running figure. A dirty sheet draped and wound over the person, completely hiding his face, tangling with his arms and legs.
“No idea,” he said. He reached into the sleeve and pulled out the strange photo, replacing it with with the fresh polaroid. He closed the album and returned it to its place on the shelf. Studying the intrusive picture some more, he came back to the sofa. “I can’t even seem to place where this was taken. Maybe you took it without me?”
“I’ve never seen anything like it in my life,” she replied.
He held it close, observing the dirt and stains in the blurred figure’s shroud. She reached over and took it from him, also studying it for a moment before crumpling it into a tight ball.
“It’s not one of ours,” she said, “I’m certain. Maybe a guest slipped it in when we weren’t looking. As a joke.” She went to the kitchen and dropped the photo in the trashcan.
He sat up, awake. The pressure in his bladder that had gone from annoyance to routine at some point in the past two years forced him out of bed and across the hall to the bathroom. He shuffled in the dark, not bothering to turn on the lights. When he was done he got a quick drink and made his way back to the bedroom. There, he paused. The words escaped before he could stop them. “What the—”
It sat there on the nightstand, a black brick in the darkness. But it couldn’t be. Not here. He had to be sure, so he switched on the lamp.
“What are you doing?” she groaned as the light woke her up. She rolled over to see him looming over the photo album as if by the sheer intensity of his disbelieving stare he could will it back to its proper place on the shelf downstairs. “You brought it up?” she asked.
“No!” he hissed. “I went to use the bathroom and it was here when I came back.”
“You’re teasing me,” she said.
But he didn’t answer. A terrible thought occurred to him, and he flung the book open, flipped through the pages until he found—
“Not possible,” he muttered. But impossible or not, it was there: the strange photo of the shrouded man running down the empty road. The creases, though still visible, had been smoothed out. Anniversary photo number thirty was missing.
“But where are we?” she asked when she noted its absence.
By chance, he happened to glance down and saw the pale corner peeking from under the shadow of the bed. He bent over and picked up the polaroid, the one they’d taken earlier that night. “You must have done it while I was in the bathroom,” he said.
“You know I didn’t.”
“Well it had to be one of us, and it certainly wasn’t me!” He clumsily swapped the photos and slammed the album shut before storming downstairs. He slid the album back into its designated spot, marked by dust. He glared at the intrusive photo as he surged into the kitchen. He was about to drop it into the trashcan when a better idea struck him. He opened the cupboard above the refrigerator and produced a lighter. Going to the sink, he ignited the photo and let it curl and blacken against the stainless steel. When it was done he rinsed the ashes down the drain and returned to bed.
They woke together, their alarm set to announce the dawn. He obeyed its summons, determined not to let retirement turn him into a sedentary lump. She lingered a while in bed while he prepared to shower. He looked at himself in the mirror as he undressed, noting the sagging flesh that once hugged muscle, the deepening wrinkles that cut across his once-smooth skin. Certainly not the same man who’d worn a black tuxedo thirty years ago.
The steaming water helped him feel a little younger. He took his time, letting the heat relax his muscles—what remained of them—into wakefulness. After he’d finished cleaning himself, he stood there for a while. Then he heard something. A high, frail cry. Faint. Barely a voice. He shut off the water so he could hear better, and realized it was only her, calling him from outside the bathroom.
“Come out, quickly!”
Throwing a towel around himself, he opened the door and found her in the hall, pale, clutching her bathrobe as if she feared it would go flying off without a moment’s warning.
“You have to see,” she said, turning and beckoning him to follow.
He went after her, dripping all over the carpet, as she led him to the stairs. “I started making coffee, then came back up to fetch my book, and there—”
They stopped at the top of the stairs, she pointing to the wall halfway down.
He forgot his wetness, his nakedness under the towel, as he took the handful of uncertain steps that brought him even with the discovery. He stared and stared, refusing to believe, unable to doubt. “Get the album,” he said.
She hurried past him to obey. His eyes remained glued to it. Memory number thirty. Nailed—no, not nailed, such a crude transfixion could never be called nailed—spiked to the wall. The photo itself was flaked and blackened. Their faces had been burned away completely, showing bare wall underneath.
She returned with the album, flipping it open to last night’s entry. “No, no, no,” she muttered. “All of them?”
He took the album from her. Polaroid thirty had been replaced once more. As had every other memory. He began to shake, and the heavy book fell from his hands. “But I… I… ”
“You did it, didn’t you?” she said. “Last night when you went downstairs, you did all this—”
“You know I didn’t. And what about that?” He pointed to the burned, spiked polaroid on the wall. “It wasn’t there when you went down this morning.”
“Then you put it there when I thought you were in the shower.”
“You’d have heard me pounding it into the wall.”
“Well if it wasn’t me and it wasn’t you, then who was it?”
He looked down at the open book by his feet. The pages had turned back a few years, revealing identical, facing images. But were they identical? Was the running man in exactly the same place? Were the stains on his sheet exactly the same stains? Who was he? “We have to search the house,” he said.
She stood at the end of the upstairs hall, the walls feeling close on either side. There’s no one here. And with that comforting hope, she took her first step.
The spare room submitted first to her scrutiny. She pushed the door open, seeing the corner of a dresser, then the post of a bedframe. Her eye traveled up the unwrinkled bedsheets, jumped over to the cold lamp on the nightstand. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. She finally swung the door wide and entered, going first to the closet and laying bare its darkness. She rifled through the few articles of clothing that hung limply from the rack, old dresses she didn’t fit anymore. Behind them, she saw only blank wall; below, only bare carpet. For a moment, while her gaze was lowered, her hand brushed against something foreign, and she imagined course fabric, speckled with dirt and stained with something—but looking up she found only a threadbare jacket that had never looked stylish, even before time had taken its toll.
She shut the closet and turned to face the rest of the bedroom. There was only one other place someone could hide, so she got down on her hands and knees and peered under the bed.
The low space was empty, as she expected, but it occurred to her as she crouched there, what would she do if she found someone? Any muscle she might once have boasted was long gone. She wasn’t fast. The best she could do was scream, and that wouldn’t help much.
She slowly rose to her feet, and as she did her blood froze. For a second she thought now was the time. She would scream because that was all she could do. But her body and throat had frozen along with her blood, so she couldn’t even bring her gaze to look directly at it. It remained a movement in the corner of her eye, a billowing. She could only stand and wait for it to come closer. To claim her. And no one would ever know what had happened to her because she couldn’t even scream—
But it never came. Her muscles gradually thawed, and when at last she was able to turn she found no intruder, only a fluttering curtain, a window open just the slightest crack, a breeze caressing her cheek.
Huffing indignantly at herself, she marched to the window and slammed it shut before making her exit. The master bedroom received her attention next, though this she afforded only a cursory sweep. No one could have hidden in there all night, not while they slept, not without them knowing. She made a similarly brief inspection of the linen closet, poking through the cramped shelves in case someone had squeezed themselves inside. Lastly, she stood before the bathroom. She nearly abandoned the search there, because she could see everything, even without turning on the lights. The toilet on the left. The shower on the right—its curtain already pulled back so she could see how empty it was. The sink directly across from the door with its mirror perched above. The only person in there was her reflection. Nothing more…
And yet she could not take herself away from the bathroom threshold. Something was not… something wasn’t right. The color of the light or… something.
In the mirror, she saw herself. Behind her, the hall. Behind that, the master bedroom, dark and cavernous. And beyond that, the window looking out over the neighborhood. Except, behind her reflection, there was no neighborhood. No rooftops or chimneys. Only distant trees, swaying in slow motion against a gray sky. Their dance was echoed in the pulse of the drapes as a draft crept in around the casing.
Without turning, she backed away from the bathroom. She tried to stay out of step with the rhythm of the trees and the curtains, but their primal dance was too entrancing, too insistent. Her feet shuffled in perfect time. Even the house, as it warmed in the sun and shifted to support her weight, seemed to groan the lyrics to an unheard song. Her eyes widened as she crossed the hall backward, as she passed out of the hall and into the bedroom, as she felt the cool draft on her neck, and as she saw something begin to rise above the second-story windowsill—
Here, at last, she turned, wrenching her gaze from reflection to reality, and saw, with a gasp that was either relief or terror, the rows of houses that were always there, blessedly motionless.
He sat down on the halfway step, resting his legs. A fruitless search. The only evidence of a third person in the house was the strange business of the photos, and that could be explained easily enough. Why won’t she just confess? he thought. He looked up at the burned anniversary polaroid, still staked to the wall. But how could she do something like this? Why?
His gaze sank to the anniversary album, still lying open on the stair beside him, flaunting its array of identical photographs.
A door slammed. She was still searching upstairs. Surely she’d already given the upper floor a complete sweep twice over by now. There was no one here. No one except himself and her. Plain as that.
He poked the album with a finger, flipping the page to reveal more images of the same stranger wrapped in the same sheet running down the same road… wait a minute.
He reached down and flipped back. Forward again. Back. Forward. They weren’t the same. Not exactly. The figure’s legs were in slightly different positions. The wrinkles in the sheet were slightly distorted. And, very slightly, the man had advanced down the road.
He began flipping pages, noting now the subtle differences. Yes, the figure in the photographs was definitely making progress. He closed the album and reopened it, thumbing through the pages like a flipbook. The figure’s advance was slow. Choppy strides moved it from right to left across the frame, like watching an old movie in flickering, faded colors.
The sequence ended, and he stared at the last image, at the sleeve that should have contained last night’s thirtieth-anniversary photo. Forest, road, field. Then he noticed something in the corner, at the point where field turned to sky. A house.
The jolt in his arms and legs, the tightening in his chest, the mad denial in his skull—all came together in a single violent motion. He shot to his feet, throwing the album to the landing far below. He turned to the singed remnants of the polaroid, still transfixed to the wall by his head, and ripped it down. The paper crumbled to ash in his fingers, leaving them smeared and dark. Then he just stood there, trembling.
“It’s not our house,” she said as he showed her the album. “This is in the country somewhere.”
“But we don’t know when these were taken,” he replied. “This house might’ve been the first, then the rest of the development grew up around it. Look at the windows.”
“That’s what I’m saying.” She turned back to the stove to stir their hastily prepared supper. “They aren’t the same. Not when you look closely.”
“You can’t look closely. It’s too blurry.”
“That isn’t stopping you from jumping to conclusions.”
He slammed the album shut and threw it on the kitchen table. “Well, it’s the first explanation that makes any sense of all this.”
“It doesn’t make sense of anything, and it’s certainly not an explanation.”
“Then how do you propose those pictures got in there? How the album moved itself around the house? Where all our original pictures are?”
“Stop shouting at me.”
He bit his tongue to cut off a retort. After a deep breath, he said, “There’s got to be… is there anyplace we haven’t checked?”
“The air ducts,” she said flatly to the sizzle of grease on the skillet.
“No one could fit in there. Not even a child.”
“Maybe our photos, though. It would be something to go on, at least.”
He sighed. “I can check after supper. I’m too hungry to do anything else right now.”
He moved the album to the counter and set the table. She served up the food and they ate in silence. Forks and knives scraped against plates. Glasses were set down with soft clinks. Outside, the sun set. Gloom crept into the kitchen uninvited, extending dark fingers to surround the quiet couple and squeeze. He threw furtive glances over his shoulder from time to time. She kept her eyes fixed on her plate. She wouldn’t spare attention for things that might lurk just out of sight, not after her wild imaginings from earlier in the day. He, however, remained suspicious, alert. Every noise, every stirring of the air, caused him to wonder what corner they’d left unchecked, what might now be emerging.
The crawlspace. He blinked. The thought had come so clearly, so suddenly. She caught his eye and he spoke it out loud, “The crawlspace.”
“Under the house?” she said.
“The only place we haven’t checked. The perfect place to hide, well, anything. Anyone.” His plate was empty; he dropped his silverware and stood. Come on, let’s go look.”
She collected the dishes and carried them to the sink. Right before she reached it, there was a crash. Glass scattered across the floor. She stood there, empty-handed, staring at the counter.
The empty counter.
The album was gone.
Rusted hinges cried in the night. Crouched on his knees, he pulled the small, metal door away from the stone foundation and shone the flashlight inside. He couldn’t see much past the first few feet.
She stood above him, hands clasped at her chest. As the last ghostly echo of the door faded away, she thought the night was quieter than before. “Well?” she prompted.
He replied with a groan. “I’ll have to go in for a proper look.” He thrust the flashlight in first, and the rest of his body followed, wriggling like a fish out of water until his feet had vanished into the darker blackness beneath the house.
“See anything?” she asked.
He shone the light around, revealing dirt and gravel and cobwebs. Posts and beams cast stark shadows that leaned and spun. He crawled forward. Something sat in the dirt a few feet ahead, a white square.
He reached out and grabbed the square, turned it over. He recognized the polaroid as anniversary number ten, except their faces were torn. Especially hers.
He held up the photo and waved it over his shoulder. “Looks like they’re all here,” he said, shining the light around some more. A trail of damaged photos wound toward the far corner of the crawlspace, where the flashlight revealed nothing but a pile of dirt.
He held the light on the pile of dirt. Something sat atop it, something thick and rectangular. “No, not yet.” He pulled himself a few feet deeper, then quickly swung the flashlight back toward the far corner. It breathed—no, just dirt. But now his legs wouldn’t move and his heart felt like a grenade going off in his chest. Was that what a heart attack felt like? He held his breath and looked down at the next in the line of discarded polaroids. Number six, if he remembered correctly. Something dark stained the image, blotting out most of his smile.
“What’s wrong?” she asked from outside, sounding so far away.
Nothing, nothing, nothing. Just dirt. Nothing breathes down here. “Nothing. I… I’m going to collect all the pictures. And the album. I think it’s down here too. Then I’ll come back out.” Finally willing his legs to push him deeper into the darkness, he began counting. He didn’t pay any attention to the years; he just wanted to make sure he had them all. One was already accounted for in the house, burned almost beyond recognition. Two were in his hand. Twenty-seven more lay scattered between him and the stone wall. One. Two. Three. Four. Five, six, and seven were all crumpled together. Eight and nine—wait, just eight. It had been torn completely in two. Nine was a few feet farther. A few feet closer to the back wall where all the shadows gathered. He froze when something moved between them, another black shape flitting in and out of sight. When it happened again he realized it was just the cuff of his sleeve passing in front of the light. After taking a moment to calm himself, he crawled.
He’d collected twenty-one of the pictures when a sharp pain shot through his elbow. He dropped the flashlight and recoiled from the stone that had cut him, banging his head on a beam. From there he hit the ground, breathing in a nose-full of dirt.
“Are you alright?” she called from the entrance.
He groaned to let her know he’d live. After nursing his bloody elbow, he recovered the flashlight and pressed on. Just a few more to go. Most of the remainder lay against the slope of dirt in the corner, and at the top, impossibly, rested the album. As he approached, the narrowing space choked the light, blackness taking hold, strangling him. He reached the corner and retrieved the polaroids one by one. The last was half buried, just a triangle of white poking out from the dust. He pulled it free. A little cascade of dirt followed. Rivulets of earth and tiny stones slid loose. Finally, he reached for the album, lifted it. More miniature avalanches, terrain displaced by the movement of the heavy book, falling away, revealing—
He scrambled back, bumping up against the low ceiling, scraping his bleeding elbow. Just like in the photo. It was a brief glimpse, quickly hidden as the dirt resettled, but it was enough to brand the image on his brain: a small bit of pale, stained cloth.
She watched him back away, keeping his flashlight trained on the corner.
“What is it?” she asked. All she could see was what the narrow cone of light revealed. Rough, moldy stone. The edges of the supporting woodwork. A dusty pile in the corner. He was a silhouette, a shadow puppet shuffling awkwardly toward her. He stopped moving, a dull thump marking his collision with one of the posts. He didn’t try to alter course. Instead, he pulled himself back against the obstacle and hunched there. She caught a tremor in the beam of light, a timid adjustment in its aim as if… as if he was trying to see… see something…
“Please answer me,” she called. “What’s wrong?”
The flashlight fell from his hand and rolled across the uneven floor. It came to rest at an odd angle, illuminating nothing but half a beam of wood and more stonework. There was a grunt from the darkness. A choked gasp. She realized she was shaking, violent shudders from her hands down to her feet. She held her breath and listened, not quite daring to call out, not quite, until she realized all the noises had stopped and all she could hear was the blood roaring in her ears.
“Are you… alright?” Her voice came out as a squeak.
Slowly, night noises resumed behind her. Crickets sang in the shrubs across the street. Pavement hissed as a lonely car passed several blocks away. The air sighed as a breeze played with the trees. Something, she sensed, something had happened. Something had finished. Something had drawn its influence back from the world, allowed things to go back to normal. Normal. No. Not normal. He was still in there, lying in the dirt under the house, silent. Unseen, unanswering. Possibly hurt. Possibly—
She reached in, first one arm, then the other, then one leg, then the other, and she was in. In the dark. She aimed herself at the discarded flashlight and crawled. The smell of stale earth planted hooks in her nostrils. She felt them as surely as the stones under her palms, pulling her downward, beckoning her face into the ground, diverting her eyes so she wouldn’t have to see—
Her fingers seized the flashlight and she squeezed it, catching her breath, closing her eyes for just a moment. Then she shuffled around, swinging the light across the crawlspace. She brought it to bear where she remembered last seeing him, prepared herself for what she might find. Heard a tumble of dirt behind her, but didn’t alter course because it was such a small noise and there was the cuff of his sleeve. There was the glint of his wedding band, warm and golden against glaring white skin—
And the flashlight rolled away across the bumpy ground, its glow dancing to the croak of breath cut short. The crawlspace fell dark. Just an empty hollow between the world of life and the world beneath. In the world of life, crickets continued to sing. Trees continued to laugh. Occasionally, vehicles cut the night with their headlights. Most people slept. No one saw the old couple, married thirty years, investigating the void beneath them. Hours later, during a moment when even the crickets held their breaths, no one heard the metal hatch to the crawlspace swing shut. And a short time after dawn, their neighbor pulled out of his garage and drove to work, oblivious.
Credit: James Colton