02 Jun The Burned Photo
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"The Burned Photo"Written by Nicky Exposito (a.k.a. NickyXX)
Estimated reading time — 30 minutes
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 seem 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 playgroups 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, G.I. 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.”
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 goosebumps 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.
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 led 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 10:30 am. 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 6:30 pm 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 timeline, 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: Nicky Exposito (a.k.a. NickyXX)
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