03 Jun The Burned Photo – Part 2
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"The Burned Photo - Part 2"Written by NickyXX
Estimated reading time — 15 minutes
Part one can be read here.
My aunt took Shane to school the next morning. Mom didn’t want to tell him about Grandma until after he got home, so she’d have some time to sleep and cope with her own emotions and figure out a tactful way to explain death to a five-year-old. She planned and re-planned the speech she’d give her son over and over and still didn’t have it down by the time Shane’s grandfather – my dad’s father – dropped him off at the house at 2:30. So she simply said what she felt, unsuccessfully holding back tears.
Shane stared at her, empty-eyed.
“Oh, okay,” he said. “Artie’s outside. Can we play now?”
Mom lost it.
“Are you kidding me?” she screamed. “Grandma’s dead. And you can seriously think about playing right now?”
Shane frowned. He seemed to grasp that his mother was upset, but not quite understand why. His confused expression calmed her a little bit. He’s processing, she remembered thinking.
“Fine,” she said, more tempered. “But today, tell Artie I’m driving him home and having a talk with his mother. He’s over here a little bit too much, and I’m not sure he’s a good influence on you. We’re going to talk seriously about some time apart.”
Shane didn’t react. If his mother threatening to take his friend away affected him emotionally at all, he didn’t show it. If anything, the look he gave her was one of pity. Not devastation. Just boring, inconvenient pity. The pity inspired by a homeless man begging for change. Wordlessly, he went to the back door and let Artie in. Then, single-file like soldiers, the little boys strode into Shane’s room and closed the door.
Mom sat down on the sofa to cry. But finally, the physical and emotional turmoil of the last 24 hours hit her, and she was too tired to squeeze out tears. So she leaned back and closed her eyes for a minute. For another minute. For…
Her eyes snapped open. The room was dark. She looked at the clock on the VCR; it was past 6:00. She’d been asleep for nearly three hours. Something had woken her – a crash or a thud, some noise from a short distance away. The boys?
She went to Shane’s door and turned the knob, cracking it slightly. She could see Shane sitting cross-legged on his bed, angled away from her. He was talking in a low voice to someone sitting on the other end of the bed, out of her line of sight. She opened the door a little wider, revealing a blue-clad knee. The child giggled. It was Artie, of course. Who else?
She whirled around. There it was again, and it definitely wasn’t being caused by the boys. It seemed to be coming from the direction of the laundry room. She turned around. She heard Shane’s door click shut.
“Jim?” she called out. Though she knew it couldn’t be my dad – he had left for the airport around midnight the night before.
THUD… THUD… THUD…
She was getting scared. She considered calling 911, but didn’t think loud noises possibly coming from the basement would be enough to justify police involvement. Instead, she checked the front door and then the back. Both were locked. There was only one door to the basement and no external entrance, so if anyone was down there they would have had to sneak past her as she slept on the couch. The floorboards creaked; she’d often been awoken in the middle of the night by Jim or Shane getting a glass of water from the kitchen.
She tiptoed to the laundry room door. She took a deep breath, turned the doorknob, and switched on the light.
The room was exactly how she had left it – a basket of her scrubs and Shane’s and Jim’s jeans on the floor by the washer, a detergent bottle on top of the dryer with the lid unscrewed. She looked down at the trapdoor that lead to the basement. It was closed, and the latch was set.
The latch was set. The trapdoor had been locked from the outside.
Mom felt a wave of panic, turned to run, then caught herself. Even if an intruder had managed to sneak past her as she dozed on the couch, he couldn’t possibly have gone down into the basement and latched the door behind himself. So it was probably just rats.
Rolling her eyes at her own baseless fear, she unlatched the door and lowered herself down. When she had both feet on the landing that divided the stairs, she pulled the cord that turned on the light. A dim, piss-yellow glow illuminated the messy cellar.
Artie stood at the foot of the stairs.
Mom cried out and stumbled, managing to catch herself on a railing. Artie’s blue eyes glowed; his iridescent skin seemed to possess its own luminosity. The little boy was staring at her. Staring at her with that same twisted, inhuman, hate-filled glare she’d seen when she followed him home the day before.
“Artie! Sweetie, how did you…” she stammered, her voice high-pitched and quavering.
His glare softened, melted into a smile. The biggest smile she’d ever seen on a little boy. A first day of summer smile. A Christmas morning smile. Except there was nothing angelic about this smile. There was only malice in his eyes.
Then my mom came to a realization that made her legs weaken and her stomach drop.
If Artie was down here, then who was Shane…
Mom ran. Up the stairs, through the open trapdoor, out of the laundry room, to the bedroom of her child. She threw open the door.
The room was empty. Everything was exactly as it had been before Shane came home from school. The only thing that indicated recent occupation was two small, child-sized indents in the comforter.
She threw open the closet door and peered under the bed. She opened the window that overlooked the backyard and screamed her son’s name. Then, trembling and drenched in sweat, she stumbled back to the laundry room. This was a joke. She was seeing things. The boys were playing a trick on her. The basement door was still wide open, and the light was on. She threw herself into the rectangular aperture and whirled around on the landing.
Artie was gone. Or he was hiding. She ran down the steps to the concrete floor. Her foot landed on something small and hard, and she nearly fell headlong. A small wooden cube ricocheted off a molding cardboard box.
One of Shane’s blocks. She knelt down to examine the thing. It was the “U.” Unicorn, umbrella, unicycle, unibrow.
There were more blocks, all scattered around. They may have spelled something before she’d tripped over them. Seven of them in total. E, I, O, N, M, W, U. Like a child playing with Scrabble tiles, my mom sat cross-legged on the floor and stared at the letters.
NO WE… I, N, U
NOW U ME… I
WON ME… I, U
UNEM… W, I, O
Nothing. In frustration, she picked up two blocks – the U and M – and threw them at the ground. They bounced and clattered in opposite directions. Near tears, she rolled onto her stomach and crawled to retrieve them. Then she noticed something.
The U had landed upside down. Like a lower case “n.” The set of blocks had only one of each letter. Shane or Artie or… she shuddered… had turned it over and used it as a second “N.” Shaking like a scared animal, she lined up the blocks and started over.
She figured it out in a second.
She screamed. Calling Shane’s name over and over, she destroyed the basement, throwing boxes aside, knocking over furniture, scouring every inch of the space. When that failed to uncover anything, she tore apart the rest of the house. She opened every door, looked under every piece of furniture, ran out the back door and made two rotations around the property, crying out for her child into the darkness.
Finally, she called the police. They sent a patrol car over, and she told them everything. The cops were sympathetic and understanding and, within an hour, five more cars were casing the area for any sign of the boys. They’d find her son, they told her. Two little kids couldn’t have gone that far. When she said she’d never once met Artie’s mother, the cops seemed surprised, but assured her they’d check out the unkempt white house he’d disappeared into.
The officers offered Mom a ride to her mother’s house to stay with her sister. She could rest tonight, then come into the station to answer questions in the morning. In the meantime, they’d continue searching the streets and keep patrol cars outside the house, in case Shane returned. He probably would, they told her. He and his little friend probably had some fantasy of running away to Sesame Street, and would come back as soon as they got hungry or scared of the dark.
The next morning my father, who had been rushed back to Miami, arrived at the house. One patrol car was still there. The two cops assigned to keep watch told him that if he needed anything, grab it now, because in about 30 minutes his home was going to be an active crime scene.
He never came out. The cops didn’t hear him scream.
My mom was sitting in an interrogation room with the sketch artist when she was arrested. The artist had finished a drawing of Artie. It was quite good, but there was… something missing. His eyes weren’t quite right, and she found she could not describe his smile. That evil, twisted smile. They cuffed her right there at the table.
Bonnie Ibanez, you are under arrest for the murder of Shane Ibanez.
The next few hours were a blur. She was booked, fingerprinted, photographed; all while sobbing and screaming and begging for someone to tell her what was going on. Finally, she ended up back in that same interrogation room, this time with her hands cuffed behind her back, across from a stern-looking police officer. He demanded, she cried, he yelled, she – through his threats and attempts to intimidate her – pieced together what had happened to her only child.
Jim Ibanez, her husband, returned home at approximately 10:30am. The police officers there, after checking his ID, allowed him 15 minutes to take what he needed from the house. Thirty minutes later, when he didn’t reappear, they went in after him. The door to the laundry room was open, the basement door was open, and the basement light was on. Jim was on the couch. Blood pooled at his feet, around a sharp kitchen knife. He’d slit his own wrists. He was dead.
The cops, after they’d called the paramedics and radioed for backup, had a look around.
In the family’s basement, half-covered by a patchwork quilt in his old crib, they’d found the stiff, ice-cold body of Shane Ibanez. Ten fingers, ten toes, no cuts, no broken bones, no signs of struggle or trauma at all.
Except for the clean, precise cut that had severed his head.
They never found his head.
Time of death was estimated at approximately 6:30pm the night before. The last person to see him alive, besides Mom, was the boy’s grandfather, who’d dropped him off at the house at around 3. It had just been her and Shane, he’d said.
“But…” my mom had stammered, “There’s no way. I looked everywhere for him. You guys were at the house yesterday. He wasn’t there.”
“Maybe,” the cop had said. “But we weren’t looking around that carefully, were we?”
“Artie,” she whispered.
The cop laughed mirthlessly.
“You keep on saying that,” he mocked. “Yet we have no proof this Artie ever existed.”
“But the house,” Mom said. “I saw him going into that little white house I showed you.”
“You mean the house occupied by a Ms. Myrtle Anderson? Widow, 75 years old, lives alone, doesn’t drive. No grandchildren in the state, has never seen a child matching your description.”
“Two nights ago. You told us. She was watching TV in her room at the time, says no one went in or out.”
“In fact,” the cop continued icily, “none of your neighbors seem to know this kid. According to our records, no one named Artie – or Arthur, or any other name that might be shortened to Artie – lives within a mile of your neighborhood.”
“People saw him!” my mom insisted. “My mother baby-sat them all the time. And my husband met him.”
“Both of whom,” he sneered, “are conveniently dead.”
Days went by. The sketch artist’s drawing of Artie was on every nighttime news show, displayed all around Miami, shown to everyone living within three miles of the house. Neither hide nor hair of him was ever found. My grandmother and grandfather and aunts said they’d heard Shane talking about an Artie, but that he’d described him like an imaginary friend. The cops determined he was a figment of the little boy’s imagination, capitalized on by Mom to cover up his murder.
My two aunts put their dead mother’s house up as collateral to get my mom out on bail. She holed up in her childhood bedroom, sleeping with the light on and the door open and trying to piece together how her son’s decapitated body had magically appeared in her basement.
Had some murderous sociopath kidnapped her child, strangled him right outside the window, then returned his maimed remains as soon as she left? No, that was impossible. There had been cops around all night, no one had gone in or out. And besides, she had seen Shane. In his room. Talking to Artie. But it wasn’t Artie, because Artie was in the basement.
Who had Shane been talking to?
And how had Artie teleported into the basement, bypassing the latch? Why hadn’t anyone but her and her late husband and mother and son seen the kid? Those clothes he always wore. Never stained, never wrinkled. The invisible mother. That house he’d disappeared into. And the message in the blocks.
The blocks. She’d taken photographs of the two boys playing with blocks.
She hurriedly took the film to be developed, thanking God she’d kept the used roll in her camera bag, and her camera bag in the car instead of her house, which was now under the control of the police. She paid extra at Sav-on to have it done in an hour; an hour she spent wandering aimlessly around the outdoor shopping center. She could prove it, she thought. Prove that Artie was real. Prove she wasn’t crazy. When the process was done and she had the envelope of photographs in her hands, she waited until she was at her mother’s house, in her bedroom, before opening her little package of salvation.
They found her eight hours later, curled up in a ball in the backyard, self-inflicted claw marks up and down her arms, a Bic lighter and a pile of ashes at her feet.
Mom told me she doesn’t remember a whole lot of the next six weeks. She was confined to a padded cell in a psychiatric ward, mumbling and giggling. They’d had to place boxing gloves on her hands to keep her from hurting herself. She started improving around week three, remembering her name, and then her sisters’ and husband’s and son’s names, and then finally that her husband and son were both dead.
She never told anyone what she’d seen in the photos she burned.
Upon her release from the psych hospital, my mom found herself a free woman in more ways than one. The police had dropped all charges against her, due to two extremely puzzling circumstances.
Circumstance #1: Shane’s body had disappeared. One day, it was under a tarp in a refrigerator in the coroner’s lab; the next, it was gone. In its place was a small pile of grey dust. Neither the cops nor the coroner’s office could come up with a reasonable explanation. Only three people had ID cards that would open the door to the lab; all three were accounted for. The scanner had not recorded any attempts to access the room, successful or unsuccessful. And security footage showed that no one had been anywhere near the lab the night it happened.
Circumstance #2: Her house burned down. Six weeks earlier, the two police officers tasked with guarding the crime scene had smelled smoke. The basement was burning. The flames moved unnaturally fast, soon engulfing the entire house. The cause of the fire could not be determined, but both arson and electrical failure were ruled out. Luckily, the fire didn’t spread. It was a miracle the houses on either side hadn’t gone up, the fire chief said. Probably thanks to the humidity in the air.
It was only coincidence, it was agreed, that the fire seemed to have started at exactly the same moment my mom burned her photos of Shane and Artie playing with blocks.
With no body, no motive, a questionable time line, and any potential evidence up in smoke, the cops could do nothing but free my mom and hide the case away as an unsolved mystery or an act of God. Of course, this didn’t mean she was off the hook. The cops, fearing mass panic, had kept the more inexplicable elements of the incident from the public, including the missing body. So Mom was crucified by the press. My father’s family wanted nothing to do with her. Her own sisters swore they believed her, yet insisted they sell their mother’s house as soon as possible. When it was sold, way below market price, they split the money three ways. Then, almost immediately, both sisters left the state and changed their numbers. Mom hadn’t spoken to either of them since then.
She couldn’t stay in Miami. Even if she hadn’t been attracting dirty looks and furtive whispers, if not open hostility, every time she set foot outside her dingy hotel room, the city held nothing for her. Everybody she’d cared about was gone. She saw her murdered child’s face whenever she closed her eyes, and the sight of his favorite McDonald’s or the park where he’d played as a toddler just served to twist the knife in her heart. She slept a lot, lost herself in trashy soap operas, never turning off the lamp on her bedside table. Beside the lamp she’d set a bottle of sleeping pills. She’d stare at that bottle as she lay down to sleep and when she woke up, sometimes in the middle of the day, and sometimes for what seemed like hours, wishing she could empty it with a glass of water and lose the ability to remember.
But she couldn’t. When she’d returned to her senses in the psychiatric hospital, the doctor had refused her Tylenol for her drilling headache. Because she was eight weeks pregnant.
Eventually she pulled it together, packed up her car, and drove across the country to Ohio. She paid a man for a fake passport and driver’s license under the name Elizabeth Johnson. She found a small apartment for rent. She invested some of her insurance money into starting a photography business, and then I was born, and then we moved to the little house in Cleveland.
“But Mom,” I asked her, “what was wrong with those photographs? The ones you burned – why didn’t you show them to the cops and prove Artie was real?”
At that, she sighed and closed her eyes. Her crow’s feet darkened as the color drained from her face. She looked helpless, like an old woman and a scared little girl at the same time.
“Artie wasn’t in the photographs,” she said. “The bedroom was there, the blocks were there. Shane was there. But the… thing sitting beside him. It wasn’t Artie. It wasn’t human. It was an abomination that shouldn’t exist. Humanity couldn’t… I couldn’t show anyone… I couldn’t…”
She turned away to wipe her nose, tears running down her face. I couldn’t get any more out of her. Either she thought the description of the thing she’d known as Artie would terrify me, or she couldn’t find the words to describe it. I never brought up the subject again. She didn’t let me out of her sight for weeks, and I slept in her bed for two months, terrified now that I knew what she feared. But the thing didn’t find us in La Puente. I never saw the angelic little girl in the polka-dot frock, or the red-headed teenager who couldn’t feel cold, ever again.
My mom died when I was twenty-two. Breast cancer. They caught it late; it had spread, and the chemo didn’t work. I moved all of her stuff into storage. The day after her funeral, I sat on the floor of my storage unit, surrounded by all of her memories, and looked through her photographs. Hundreds of them, maybe thousands.
I rented an apartment, found a job, passed the CPA exam. Four years later, I fell in love with a guy who worked across the hall at an advertising firm. Two years after that, we married and bought a little house in Glendale. And, last February, I became pregnant with our first child. I’m due next month. It’s going to be a little boy.
I’ve never told my husband about my mother’s story, or Shane, or the shape-shifting thing that stalks my family. (Things? Maybe there’s more than one of them.) I’m debating it now, since we’re about to be parents, but… honestly, I don’t even know how I’d go about it. My husband’s not superstitious. He’d probably just assume my mother killed Shane and assure me that homicidal impulses aren’t genetic.
But there’s a reason I’m writing this now. Why I’m putting it out there for strangers to piece through, hopefully strangers who can give me the explanation I’m desperate for. It’s because the thing that took my brother, drove my father to suicide, tormented my mother, and posed as “Katie” and “Zoe” to ensnare me – it’s still here.
Two nights ago, I came home at around nine. My husband was out. As I reached for the light switch, I nearly tripped over something small and hard. Flipping on the light, I saw the unexpected obstacle. Blocks. I knelt down. Alphabet blocks, the sort children play with. The one nearest to me was a “B,” beautifully carved and finished. On four faces were detailed pictures – bananas, a butterfly, flowers, and a little dog (a beagle?).
Holding my breath, I gathered the blocks together. There were eight of them. N, I, U, B, M, A, J, E. All with beautiful pictures, obviously part of a set. Painted blue, red, green, or yellow. Definitely not ours. Thanks to my mom’s story, I figured it out in seconds.
Benjamin. The name we’d chosen for our son. We hadn’t told anyone yet, not even my in-laws. Heart pounding, I fled, locking the door behind me and locking myself in my car. I sat there for a while, hyperventilating. Racking my brain for a logical explanation. Maybe it was a present from my husband, a surprise. But those blocks. They were exactly like the blocks my mom had described to me. Irreplaceable, one-of-a-kind. Destroyed in a fire thirty years ago.
My phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number. I answered, my voice shaking. It was a Sergio from Rent-a-Box storage. My storage unit, where I kept all my mom’s old belongings, had inexplicably caught on fire. Everything had been ruined. Hands drenched, shaking like a leaf, I drove to the facility. A huge fire truck was parked outside, but the building still stood. According to Sergio – a short, balding security guard – the fire had been limited to my unit. The cinderblock dividing walls had done their duty, apparently.
Confused and terrified, I asked to see the unit. All my mother’s photos – her photos of me growing up – had been destroyed. I stared into the charred-black little room, holding back tears. Then, in the far left corner, I saw it. A small sheet of thick paper.
“That’s odd,” Sergio muttered. “That wasn’t here ten minutes ago.”
I picked up the odd little object. It was a photograph. Relatively old, judging by the quality, and burned around the edges. I got the impression I was only looking at half of the photo; the other half had been reduced to ash. It was of a little boy playing with blocks. Blocks identical to the ones scattered on my living room floor. Blocks that, when I returned home hours later, had mysteriously disappeared, though the doors were locked and the rest of the house was untouched.
The boy was about five years old, dressed in high-waist shorts and the sort of t-shirt popular in the early eighties. His mop of curls, coffee-colored skin, square jaw, and large deep-set eyes bore an uncanny resemblance to photos of me at the same age. He was smiling. Laughing. Looking to his right, at another person depicted in the burned-out portion of the picture. An undecipherable shadow fell across him.
I stared at the photo for a long moment. I knew it was Shane, and I knew the unseen entity next to him was the creature who’d posed as “Artie.” What I couldn’t understand was how the photo had ended up here, as my mother had burned it to ashes thirty years ago, after whatever cast that shadow had driven her to insanity.
The last detail I noticed, before the photo crumbled into dust in my hands, was that the blocks laid out in front of Shane spelled out a word. The numerical “0” and the letters “S,” “O,” and “N.”
Credit To – NickyXX
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