The Burned Photo – Part 1

June 2, 2015 at 12:00 AM

The estimated reading time for this post is 18 minutes, 2 seconds

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When I was a little girl, I lived with my mom in a rented two-bedroom house in Cleveland, Ohio. The paint was chipping and there were stains on the shag carpet that had been there since the 70’s and the heater broke each year, on cue, in the middle of January, but there was a big backyard with a big tree to climb and I thought the dump was a castle.

My mom was a small woman, only about five-foot-one; slender, and pale. Her eyes were large and deep-set, giving her a look of perpetual exhaustion and world-weariness. She had networks of tiny lines extending from the corner of each eye, premature crows-feet, which became more pronounced when she smiled. So even when she was laughing, she looked like she was sad.

She was a professional photographer; weddings and parties mostly; graduations, quincineras, family reunions – any sort of gathering people pay to memorialize. Pictures defined my childhood. Photos in frames on the walls and propped on every flat surface, filling cheap albums stacked in my mom’s closet, sealed in Sav-on envelopes stored in boxes. Sometimes, on rainy Saturdays or mornings when I was too sick to go to school, I’d sit cross-legged on the floor and look through a bunch of them, watching myself grow up, one perfect memory at a time.

One clear-skied, grass-smelling day in May, when I was nine, I was alone in my room, reading a Babysitters Club book on my bed. My mom was in her bedroom, napping after a long night photographing a corporate event. I glanced up and out my window and noticed something out of the ordinary – in the backyard, standing in front of the tree, was a girl about my age. She had olive skin and long, jet-black hair. She wore a lacy green frock with polka-dots. Her eyes caught mine, and she smiled at me. She had a very big, very pretty smile.

I opened the window and called out to her. “Hey! Where did you come from?”

She skipped to the window and looked up at me. Our backyard sloped in such a way that she could have stood on tiptoe and grabbed hold of the ledge.

“Hi!” she chirped. Her voice was kind, comforting. “I’m Katie. What’s your name?”

“Felicia,” I told her. “Why are you in my backyard?”

She shrugged. “I live down the street. I just moved in. Do you want to play with me?”

I frowned. My mom had always insisted she meet my friends and their parents before I invited them into our house. This was a rule she’d imposed when I was in preschool, and one on which she was unrelenting.

“Hold on,” I told Katie. “Lemme ask my mom.”

Katie’s face fell. “Do you have to? Can’t you let me in first? I’m really tired and I have to go to the bathroom.”

“It’ll just take a minute,” I said, and scampered away.

“No, wait!” Katie called after me.

I went into my mom’s room and shook her awake. She rolled onto her back and looked up at me with bloodshot, tired eyes. She smiled groggily.

“Sweetie, are you okay?”

“Mom,” I said, “there’s a girl outside. She says her name is Katie. Can she come in to play?”

Mom sat straight up. Her red eyes widened, and the look she gave me was one of abject terror. Contagious terror. I felt my heartbeat quicken and my palms moisten.

“Where…” she stammered, “where did she come from? Is she at the front door?”

“She’s in the backyard,” I told her. “She just appeared.”

Mom threw herself onto her feet and ran out of the bedroom, towards the back door. I followed close behind her. She kicked open the door and ran into the yard. Katie was gone. I wondered where she had gotten to so fast; I’d only been in my mom’s room for a couple minutes. Mom, apparently, didn’t care.

“STAY AWAY FROM HER!” she screamed, addressing the air around her. “Stay the FUCK AWAY from my child!”

I stared, frozen in place. I’d never heard my mom curse before. She turned back to me, big eyes wild, small body heaving.

“Felicia,” she panted, “get your stuff. We’re going to a hotel.”

We stayed in the hotel for two days, during which time Mom arranged for a U-haul truck and a small rented house in Aspen, Colorado. By the morning of the third day, all of our belongings were packed and we were heading east on the interstate. I skipped school, and every time Mom allowed her eyes to rest anywhere but on me for more than a few seconds, her head would snap back in my direction, her face a mask of horror. It wasn’t until we were on the road that she started to relax.

Aspen was nice. I liked my new school, and Mom was hired as the staff photographer for an upscale banquet hall. I asked her a million times why we had to move – not even move, flee in the dead of night – and I think she gave me a million different answers. She was sick of Cleveland. Aspen had a lower crime rate. Work was steadier here; lots of nice hotels hosting fancy weddings.

Never once did she mention Katie, or her outburst in our backyard.

One windy, ice-cold day in early December, when I was fourteen, I walked home after school. My mom was out photographing a convention at a nearby hotel. I was unlocking my front door when I noticed a girl about my age sitting at the other end of the porch, her back to the house. Upon hearing my keys jingle, she stood and turned to me.

She was very pretty; thin, pale, with freckles and red hair. She wore a black V-neck shirt and skinny jeans. She smiled. Her smile was lovely, as though seeing me was the best thing that had happened to her all day. I grinned back at her, momentarily ignoring the kicks from my fight-or-flight reflex. Something about her threw me off, but I couldn’t quite say what.

“Um, hi,” I said. “Can I help you?”

The girl nodded. “I’m Zoe,” she said. “I’m sorry to impose on you, but can I possibly come in? I live a few houses down, and I forgot my keys. Can I use your phone?”

“I guess,” I said warily. My mom still had her rule about allowing people inside the house she hadn’t met, but it had begun to seen a little ridiculous. This chick looked harmless.

Except she was wearing a short-sleeved shirt and no jacket in below-freezing weather.

Suddenly, I remembered Katie, and the terror the strange little girl had inspired in my mother. Then I noticed how much this girl resembled her. Same big smile and innocent eyes, staring at me expectantly.

I turned and ran. I holed up at a friend’s place a few blocks away, and got a ride from her older brother to the hotel where my mom was taking pictures. Three days later, we were out of the lease, packed up, and on the road. La Puente, California this time.

When we’d gotten home that day, the day I’d found Zoe sitting on the porch, I went inside ahead of my mom while she gathered her equipment. I turned on the light. There was something different on the coffee table, though nothing else had been touched. I walked over to investigate, and found a photograph of a little Black boy. An old photograph, by the looks of it. The boy in the photo was two or three, maybe, giggling while leaning over the edge of what appeared to be a bathtub filled with bubbles. The edges of the picture were charred.

I didn’t notice my mom come up behind me. At the sight of the strange picture, she screamed. Startled, I dropped it.

As soon as the photo hit the ground, it disintegrated into dust.

We stayed in a hotel after that.

The night before we planned to leave for California, Mom and I sat on the couch in our hotel room, watching sitcom re-runs. Our U-haul truck was parked in the lot. When the channel went to commercials, Mom muted the TV. We sat in silence for a moment. She hadn’t given an explanation for our move this time, and I didn’t need one. I knew it had to do with Zoe, or Katie, or whatever was causing these girls to continually seek me out and ask to be invited into the house. And that photo of the little boy.

“Felicia,” she finally said to me, “I don’t want to tell you why we have to keep moving like this. God, I’ve spent the last fourteen years trying to protect you from it. Trying to pretend it’s gone. But it just keeps on finding you and me, no matter how far we run.”

There was a reason, she told me, that I didn’t have a father. Or a grandmother or grandfather, aunts or uncles or cousins. Why all of our acquaintances and her few friends had only known us since I was six months old and we’d moved to Cleveland. Why we lived so far away from her hometown of Miami – the only piece of information she’d ever shared about her past – and why we’d never gone back.

It was all because of the little boy in the picture. Shane. My brother. And another little boy he’d once played with.

Before I was born, my mother lived with my father and Shane in a house just outside of Miami. My mom’s name was Bonnie then. Bonnie Ibanez. She loved taking pictures, but it was just a hobby. Professionally, she was a nurse at a hospital. My father’s name was James Ibanez. He was Dominican; curly-haired and dark-skinned, like me. He worked as a commercial pilot and, due to the nature of his job, was away from home for days at a time. So, most of the time, it was just my mom and Shane.

Shane was the love of her life. Mom’s eyes lit up as she described him to me. He was very smart, she said; always learning, always taking apart appliances and trying to put them back together, exploring, finding his way into and out of things. One memorable evening, while my mom was on the phone, he managed to slip into the laundry room, unlatch the trapdoor that lead to the basement, climb down – then get lost and scared when the door slammed shut and he couldn’t find the light switch. He loved animals, and GI Joe, and books about talking animals or fantasy creatures or witches and wizards. But just nice witches. He didn’t like scary stories.

Though Shane was a sweet child, he was shy, and had difficulty making friends with his kindergarten classmates. My mom did all she could to recruit him a playmate – she organized a carpool with other mothers, arranged play dates, enrolled Shane in karate class. But despite her efforts, as summer became fall, the end of first semester approached, and kindergarten play groups became airtight, her son was still spending recess playing alone on the swings and weekends in his room, with only his toys to keep him company. Mom was frustrated.

One Saturday in mid-November, after dozing off on the couch while watching some gossip show, she was awoken by the sound of an exuberant peal of laughter. She immediately went to check on Shane in his room, where he had been playing with his Legos.

Shane was still there, sitting cross-legged on the floor. Next to him was a small boy with milky-pale skin, blue eyes, and ice-blonde hair, dressed in overalls and a red t-shirt.

Mom nearly screamed.

“Oh!” she managed to stammer. “How the heck did you get in…”

Then she realized she was looking at her son, and that he was interacting happily with a kid his own age. She smiled.

“Shane, why don’t you introduce me to your new friend?”

“His name is Artie,” Shane replied gleefully.

“Well, hi Artie!” Mom said, with the enthusiasm a lost sailor has for land. “Do you live around here?”

Artie nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Well, aren’t you polite?” she gushed. “You’re welcome to come over any time you want. But, sweetie, do your parents know you’re over here? I’m sure they don’t want you wandering the streets all by yourself.”

“It’s okay,” he told her. His voice was angelically sweet. “I told my mom I was going to play with the kid down the street. She said it’s okay.”

Artie smiled at her. My mom said it was the widest smile she’d ever seen on a little boy. A first day of summer smile. A Christmas morning smile, new puppy smile. Poor kid, she mused. His parents must not be the most attentive adults on the planet, if they unquestioningly allowed their elementary school-aged child to run off to the house of a neighbor they’d never met. And such a sweet little boy! Maybe he, like her son, was lonely and in desperate need of a friend.

So she left them alone for the rest of the afternoon. When dinnertime came around, she told Artie he was welcome to stay. But he insisted he needed to be going home, lest his mom be worried. The minute the front door slammed shut after him, Shane ran to our mom and asked her if please, please, please Artie could come over and play again tomorrow?

Mom was very happy.

“So, sweetie,” she asked Shane over dinner, “how did you even meet Artie? I think I would have heard him come in the front door, the way the floorboards squeak in the living room.”

Shane shook his head. “He was in the backyard. He climbed in through my window.”

“Oh,” Mom replied. “That’s… different. Does he go to your school?”

“Nuh-uh,” Shane said. “He says his mom teaches him at home.”

Home-schooled. So Artie was definitely lonely and desperate for a playmate. And since he wasn’t surrounded by other children all day, Shane had no competition for his friendship. Mom was ashamed of the thought, but also aware her shy, awkward son could use all the handicaps he could get.

Artie did come over the next day, and three more days that week after Shane came home from school. The boys got along beautifully. Artie seemed fascinated by Shane’s toys – his die-cast car collection, numerous stuffed puppies, GI Joe and Transformers action figures, Legos. My mom assumed he didn’t have a lot of toys at home, since he never brought any of his own, and seemed fascinated by the existence of such playthings. Maybe his parents didn’t have a lot of money. That would make sense, since every time she saw him he was wearing the same overalls and red t-shirt. Like a cartoon character.

His favorite toy was the same as Mom’s – the beautiful set of blocks her late father had made for Shane. It was a set of forty – letters, numbers, and four blank ones – in a box with handles. The letters and numbers were artfully carved in an Old English font on two sides of each block; the other four faces were decorated with a different object that started with the letter, or were in groups of the appropriate number. A beagle, a butterfly, a bunch of bananas, and a bouquet of buttercups for “B”; a pair of shoes, two eyes, a bride and groom, and salt and pepper shakers for the number “2”; and so on. Each was detailed with a muted red, yellow, blue, or green. The toy was utterly unique. Irreplaceable. Shane, too young to appreciate the fine craftsmanship and all the hours of labor that had gone into its making, had lost interest a year before. But Artie was tickled pink. He amused himself, and Shane, for hours; spelling out different words and giggling.

One day, my mom was off work and in a creative mood. The boys were in Shane’s room, building word towers with the blocks, and they looked particularly sweet for some reason. So mom took out her camera. Quietly, calmly, as though photographing wild animals, she snapped a few shots through the bedroom door. The boys caught on almost immediately, and began striking mock-dramatic poses, arranging the blocks to spell “poop” or “fart” or in random patterns. She finished off the roll and collapsed on the floor with them, all three giggling like toddlers.

Day after day, week after week, the boys spent more and more time together. Artie met my father, once or twice, for a few minutes, as he rushed out the door to the airport or stumbled to his room to sleep off his latest bout of jetlag. He met my maternal grandmother, who stayed with Shane when both my parents were at work, and charmed her with his sweet voice and pleas to teach him how to knit. He began staying over for dinner a few times a week, though he never seemed to eat a whole lot.

Soon, Artie was on the front porch every day, waiting for Shane to get home from school. Always wearing the same red shirt and overalls. Always pale, no matter how much time the boys spent out in the sun. Always angelic.

As the boys grew closer, my mom became increasingly curious about Artie’s family – who, apparently, were invisible. She’d spoken about Artie to several of the other young mothers on the cul-de-sac, gossipy women who made it their duty to know everything about everyone. Yet none of them had seen nor heard of the little boy, let alone his mysterious parents.

Mom had been fully expecting, sooner or later, a pale-skinned, blue-eyed, ice-blonde woman to come knocking at the front door, smiling sheepishly as she asked the whereabouts of her little boy. Maybe she’d be wearing a denim jumper and a red top.

But no such woman ever came.

“Artie, do you want me to drive you home tonight?” Mom asked him sweetly one day, as he and Shane were organizing toy cars in the living room.

He smiled at her and shook his head. “S’okay, ma’am.”

“Are you sure, honey? I’d like to meet your mommy. Let her know her son’s not spending his time with a bunch of crazy people.” She giggled.

Artie’s blue eyes flashed. His smile drooped.

“You can’t, ma’am.” He shook his head exaggeratedly. “My mommy’s sick. She doesn’t like seeing people.”

With that, he turned his attention back to Shane and the cars, and responded to any further inquiries about his mother or offers of a ride home with the same exaggerated shaking of his head. My mom dropped the subject.

Then, day by day, one small adjustment at a time, Shane began to change.

First, he stopped letting Mom touch him. When she’d extend her hand for his to cross the school parking lot, he’d let her take it only reluctantly, and with a pained, nearly vicious look on his face. He’d stiffen like a board when she put her arms around him. The jingling of her keys, which had once summoned Shane like a lonely puppy, now only inspired a languid look towards her direction from whatever unseen point in space he was staring at.

Then, he stopped eating. He and Artie sat side-by-side at the dinner table, stirring their food around their plates, lifting their forks without taking a bite, throwing dull-eyed glances at one another when they thought Mom wasn’t looking. She was sure Shane had been throwing away his sack lunches at school. Whenever she offered him any food, he’d invariably reply, “I’m just not hungry, Mom.”

Finally, he stopped talking. After dinner, he’d retreat to his bedroom to do his homework, where he’d stay until Mom knocked on the door and told him to take a bath. When he finished bathing and putting on his pajamas, he’d shut his bedroom door, turn off the lights, and close his eyes. No story. No kiss goodnight. He only spoke when responding to direct questions, and with as few words as possible. When he didn’t have to wake up for school in the morning, he’d lie in bed until early afternoon. Until Artie came over to play.

And the way Artie and Shane interacted had changed as well. The boys no longer played in the yard or chased each other around the house. Instead, they’d retreat to Shane’s room immediately, and stay there all afternoon with the door closed. When my mom would check in, she’d find them sitting peacefully on the bed. Sometimes, if she listened through the door, she’d hear things being moved about and clinking together, possibly Shane’s cars. But whatever it was they were doing in there, they did it neatly. When Artie would finally leave for the night, the room was always in exactly the same condition it had been before Shane came home from school.

My dad assured Mom that Shane was just going through a phase. And, for the time being, she chose to believe that because she had to. My grandmother was ill. She’d been living quite effectively with diabetes for years; then, out of the blue, her kidneys had failed. One sister moved home to live with her and take her to dialysis, but my mom was left to deal with her bills and legal documents and health insurance.

One day, stressed and tired and getting a headache, she pushed aside the pile of pension documents she’d been analyzing at the kitchen table. Might as well see what the boys were up to. As she approached Shane’s closed door, she heard muted giggles. She pressed her ear to the wood.

“Mumble mumble… maybe, she’d be really mad… giggle giggle giggle.”

The mumbling was definitely Shane’s voice, but my mom couldn’t make out exactly what he was saying. Then Artie spoke.

“Mumble… not like gone forever, but… mumble mumble mumble… no one would ever see … giggle giggle giggle.”

She leaned on her right foot. The floorboards squeaked. The voices behind the door fell silent. Quickly, like a child caught sneaking a cookie before dinner, she scampered back to the kitchen table and made herself look busy. Shane’s door didn’t open; she was in the clear. But something about what she’d heard had unsettled her.

A small part of that unease was due to the odd content of their conversation. It was also strange that she couldn’t understand most of what they were saying, despite being only a few feet away.

But mostly, she was bothered by the fact that she was sure she’d heard more than two voices.

That night, she waited until Artie was out the door, then tried to have a conversation with her son. She caught him in the hallway between the kitchen and his bedroom.

“Shane, sweetie,” she began gently, “what do you and Artie talk about?”

He turned to her and shrugged. “Stuff.”

“I know that,” she said, a little more demanding. “What kind of stuff?”

“Places he likes to go to.”

“Oh!” My mom smiled. “Like Chuck-e-cheese? Or McDonald’s?”

Shane shook his head. “No. Special places. There’s other kids there. He’s going to take me there soon.”

“Oh, okay.”

Mom had no idea how to respond. Shane, done with talking, slipped into his room and closed the door. There was something strange about the way he had said that. ‘He’s going to take me there soon.’ Not ‘can we go there?’ As though he had no choice in the matter. And as though she had no choice in the matter.

The next evening, Mom worked the graveyard shift. Artie left around seven, as she was putting her hair in a bun and grabbing her car keys. She watched his small, red-and-blue clad form stride purposefully out the front door.

And she decided to follow him home.

She waited until he was a few car lengths’ ahead of her, going east, towards where the street dead-ended. Then, she stepped on the gas with her headlights off, driving very slowly, focused on the little boy’s blond head bobbing up and down. He made it to the dead end. Mom braked. He kept on walking, around the circular sidewalk, until he was heading west. That was strange, she thought. Why hadn’t he just crossed the street in front of their house?

Then he stopped. He turned around and saw my mom’s car. He looked her in the eye. Startled, she stepped off the brake pedal and let the car roll forwards. On his angelic face, she said, was the most hate-filled expression she’d ever seen on a living thing.

He turned away, and made a beeline for the house right in front of him – a small white one with an unkempt lawn and empty driveway. The door was embedded in a dark alcove, my mom couldn’t see it from the car. Artie walked into the alcove and was swallowed by the darkness. Mom assumed he’d entered the house, but no lights were turned on.

She considered going in after the little boy. Whatever his living situation was with his unseen mother, it obviously wasn’t ideal for a small child. It was well after dark, and he was coming home to an empty, unlit house. But there was something about that look he gave her. That insipid, ugly glare. She felt nauseous thinking about it. So she made a U-turn and drove to work. It wasn’t until she was in the hospital parking lot that she noticed the goose bumps on her arms and the whiteness of her knuckles from grasping the steering wheel.

An hour into her shift, Mom got the call from her sister. The skin around their mother’s catheter had been reddish and tender for a couple days. She’d thought it was just a rash, but that night my aunt had found my grandma unresponsive on the floor. She’d been rushed to another hospital in town. By the time the ambulance pulled into the ER, Grandma had flat-lined. Septic shock.

It was only coincidence, my mom decided, that her mother seemed to have collapsed at exactly the same moment Artie fixed her with that disgusting glare.

Part two can be read here.

Credit To – NickyXX