Picture Perfect

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📅 Published on January 21, 2020

"Picture Perfect"

Written by Seth Paul

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Estimated reading time — 6 minutes

The world can be a cruel place.  I had always been optimistic about life and the promises it held, and that even with life’s ups and downs, working hard and striving for the best one could be always led to better things.

My perspective changed after my daughter drowned at the tender age of thirteen.  There was no reason for it; it was at summer camp, the lake was calm, she was an experienced swimmer, lifeguards were on duty.  But it still didn’t change the fact that she was gone, taken from me by a cruel, unforgiving world.

I knew I was not alone in this; tragedy takes people all the time, from natural disasters to mass shootings.  But pain is pain, no matter how it happens.  I went about my life as best I could, as did my wife, but there was always that piece missing, that our only child would never come home, never smile about her grades, never talk about going off to study.  Even at thirteen, she had an eye on the future in a way I never did; she would talk about going into chemical engineering so she could go into the energy fields, while my Philosophy degree all but guaranteed I’d be in a cubicle for the rest of my life.

I saw her life of untapped promise, all gone.  All I could look forward to was what could have been, and what I had now, and as I did, my life began to unravel.  It wasn’t a dramatic unraveling, just a slow descent into depression and a gray sense of purposelessness.  My wife and I barely saw each other anymore, just working ourselves to the bone paying for a house too big for us.  When we spoke, it was about the weather, or politics, or what to have for dinner.

Nine years went by.  I came home to find dinner in the oven and a note that my wife had an errand she needed to run.  Sometimes I wondered if it was really an errand, and I found myself not blaming her if it wasn’t.

I sat in front of my computer and loaded up my email, wondering if there were any bills I had missed paying this month.

That was when I saw it.  No sender identified, just a subject line and an attachment.  It read, “What could have been.”

It was most likely a virus and I was going to delete it, but I found that, today, I really didn’t care if my computer was infected.  I clicked on it.

I didn’t expect the images that came up.  Images of a smiling young woman, wearing a graduation cap, holding a diploma.  Chemical Engineering.

The name.  It was her.  My daughter.  But…it couldn’t have been.  She was thirteen.

There was more text in the email.

I cannot bring back the missing years.  But I can take away the loss you feel.  I offer my services to you.  There is no fee, but there is an agreement.  Simply respond ‘Yes’ to this email, and go to sleep tonight, and you can have back the piece you know is missing in your life.

Simple as that.  It wasn’t much of a sales pitch, but that just made it sound more true than if it were more glitzy.  But it couldn’t be true.  The dead couldn’t be brought back to life.  She was gone, and all this was a cruel joke, being played at my expense.

But then, if it was just a joke, what could be lost?  Nothing could be worse than what had happened nearly ten years ago…at worst, I could laugh at being made a fool of.  It wouldn’t be so bad to laugh again.

I responded in the affirmative, and then went about my day as usual.  Despite my obvious reservations, I couldn’t help but be excited when I went to sleep.  I didn’t talk about it with my wife…why would she believe me, for one, and for another, what good was it to build up her hopes if it wasn’t going to come true?

When I woke, the bed next to me was empty, save for another errand-based note.  I looked around, but there was silence in the house.  I sighed; I knew it had to be fake, but the fact that it was felt even worse now that I had gotten my hopes up.

I was having breakfast, ready to head off to work, when the knock came at the door.  We had plenty of solicitors in the neighborhood that showed up early in the morning, so I didn’t think much of it when I answered the door…and she was there.

I couldn’t speak for a moment, and neither could she.  We just looked at each other, wide-eyed, and then she threw her arms around me.

She didn’t even have to say a word.  We both broke into tears.  The email had been right.  She had come back to me.  How, I still didn’t know, but here she was, just as lovely and sweet as she had ever been.  Older, just like she had been in the picture, but I could still see that same glint in the eyes, the smile she gave on every A she brought home.

I called in to work and told them an appointment came up.  They understood; I didn’t realize how much PTO I had accrued, so it wasn’t even that big a deal to have the day off.  We decided to go to a diner we loved to eat at.  I hadn’t been there in years; it was dingier than I remembered, but it didn’t matter.

It was a little awkward at first, trying to come up with things to say… how do you reconnect with someone who has been gone for years?  But I didn’t even need to worry…the words poured out of her so quickly that I just listened.  A life I had never seen, friends and relationships, schoolwork, balancing college studies with making sure she had a life outside of it, and the internship with DTE that she had just started.  She had spent a few years dating a young man, and just a few days ago he had proposed to her.  She showed me the ring.  I didn’t even know him yet, but he already sounded wonderful.  Of course, as her father I’d have to keep an eye on him, just as a precaution, but still, just knowing she was here was more than enough for me.

But something still didn’t make sense to me.  How did she have such a rich and full life?  How could she have been brought back, and have so much history, when all those years for me were just… gone?

I didn’t know how to ask that, exactly, so I just nodded and listened some more, as our meal finally came to the table.  But I got my answer anyway.

It was not what I expected.  And my blood ran cold.

“I just couldn’t believe my eyes, Dad.  I just… I couldn’t believe someone would be able to do that.”

“Do… what?”

She looked at me, at first confused, and then she smiled.  “Oh, right, of course.  It was that email.  It had that picture of you, and told me all I had to do was say yes, and I didn’t believe it was true, but what was the harm in trying, and here you are.”

She had gotten the same email.  A picture of me, like I had gotten hers.

She placed her hand on mine.  “I’m just so glad to have you back.  The car accident was so devastating that I didn’t think Mom would ever recover.  But it was different for me.  I was so close to giving up on my dreams, but I knew you were watching over me in spirit.  It got me back into gear, and I tried so hard.  Because I wanted to make you proud of me.”

I think she noticed me growing pale, but I didn’t let on anything.  I didn’t even tell her my side of things.  She was so happy to have me back in her life, I couldn’t tell her how for me, she had been dead since she was just a teenager.

It’s been a few months since we met.  I have to say met instead of reunited, because in that time I have learned much, but not all.

I know I am not her father.  She looks like my daughter, acts like her, has all of her memories, but she is not the girl who died all those years ago.  Just as I know I am not the man who died in a car accident.

I have watched movies and read books in my time about parallel universes, but always just considered them in good fun.  But they are real.  She is from another world, just like mine, where I died and she lived.  And I pretend I have come back from the dead, for her sake.

But that’s not the end.

On my bedside dresser are pictures.  Pictures of me, my wife, and my daughter.  Smiling.  Happy.  And they don’t stop at age thirteen.  I’m with her when she graduates.  We are on vacations together.

I don’t let her see the pictures.  Let her know the truth.

This world is neither of ours.  We have been taken from our worlds and placed together in some third place, away from all we ever knew.  It looks like the world we left, but it’s not the same.  It’s all little changes, little differences, that make me wonder.

I wonder who brought us here, and why.

I wonder what happened to that other me, and the daughter, who are smiling in those pictures.

I wonder if we are the first that this has happened to.

But what truly keeps me awake at night is, if we are not the first, what will happen to us if we are not the last.

Credit: Seth Paul (Chilling Tales for Dark NightsFacebookTwitter • Amazon)
Edited by Craig Groshek

This story is a CTFDN Original, produced in collaboration with audio horror group Chilling Tales for Dark Nights, which has been making quality horror since 2012. For more original stories and audio horror tales, visit their official YouTube channel or their Simply Scary Podcasts network today.

Publisher’s Note: The authors request that anyone who desires to narrate, perform, or adapt this story to any other format, or feature it on a YouTube channel, podcast, or other platform, contact them for permission before doing so. Use of the author’s work without this permission is strictly prohibited. You may reach the authors here. Thank you!


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