Hello hello and welcome to a dark short story. What is that I hear? What’s different than usual? Well probably nothing, but it was written for the prompt from the Belleville Writer’s Collective:
‘He might have said anything, knowing it was his final hour’ – The Buddha’s Last Instruction by Mary Oliver
So follow the story of our narrator, who chooses not to follow instructions, and discovers something very unsettling. Don’t want to spoil it, but dark and creepy, so reader be warned. Note, best read aloud, and to that effect I am trying to upload audio to this for the first time ever.
I don’t know what I was expecting when I pulled the brown photo album out from where he said it would be. If I’m being entirely honest, I didn’t expect to find anything when I reached up into the attic from the top of the closet.
I sat with it on my lap for a while before I opened it, looking down at the cover’s embossed gold lettering, PHOTOS, and considered doing as he asked and tossing it into the fire. Looking back, I wish I had.
I braced myself before I opened it, hoping that I wasn’t about to see a collection of vintage nudes, but that would have been better than what was inside.
I flipped through the pages absently, and then what I was seeing really hit me. I ran trembling fingers along the brittle plastic sheet, feeling the raised edge of the Polaroids underneath, 4 to a page.
The ones in the beginning were fading out, the date written in blue ink providing a stark contrast to the thick yellowed border at the bottom edge of each photo. The terror though, that was still as visceral as I imagine it was the days the pictures were taken.
As I moved through the album, the pictures became clearer, far more of them than I could have imagined, even if I could ever have imagined something like this.
The transition to grainy ink-soaked paper was jarring, a reminder of how angry he had been when his trusty old camera had broken, and replacements were astronomically expensive. We tried to get him one with film, but he was insistent on not being dependent on someone else to make his pictures, why didn’t it occur to us to ask why he didn’t want anyone else to see.
We went together, Jannie, Donnie and me, to get him the digital camera and printer, and while it wasn’t a Polaroid, he was glad for a way to continue his photography. I never did ask him about it, never saw another picture he took outside those ones of us the day we gave it to him. Now I know why.
The newer Polaroid’s hadn’t had a chance to fade yet. I tried to imagine him taking these with the pastel pink camera I bought him at Michaels, when “instant” pictures became the new fad a second time. I felt like a million bucks looking at the smile he had on his face when he unwrapped the box Christmas morning and saw the camera, I had gotten him, now I feel like garbage.
As much as I tried to deny that he did this, was a part of this, evidence to the contrary hit me page after page. A two year gap in dates during his recovery, the barely legible scrawl that followed when he still had weakness in his left arm, and the sharpening penmanship as he fought his way back to full mobility.
I remember thinking how strong he was in the face of the stroke, how determined he was to recover, and I thought it was for all of us, so we didn’t lose him, but he probably wasn’t thinking about us at all.
Another few years and the writing starting going downhill again, the last photo was dated a week before we first brought up the subject of a nursing home. I thought he was being stubborn when he resisted over a year, but looking at the basement in the background, it must have taken him almost that long to get rid of the evidence in the condition that he was in. I always thought it was strange that he put so much work into it for a place he was soon to be leaving, but I thought he was in denial. He wasn’t though, it was all calculated, every bit of it.
I closed the album, and looked at the fire. What do I do now? Do I heed his wishes, and toss it?
I wished more than anything that I had listened to those last gasping words he said on his deathbed, that I had thrown it out without looking, or that I had ignored him entirely, dismissing the instructions as a product of the dementia, but I hadn’t, and now I had a choice to make.
This could give a lot of people closure, but at what cost? He wouldn’t suffer for it, he was gone. It would be me, and Jannie, and Donnie who paid the price. It would be my son, my daughter who was six months along with her first, so her son too.
I found myself on the stool in the closet, tucking the album back into the attic, before I had even really thought about what I was doing, but I couldn’t bring myself to pull it back down, not now, maybe not ever.
I closed up the attic, and swept up the stray bits of insulation from the closet floor like I was trying to sweep away the memories of what I had seen. I didn’t have to make a choice on what to do with it today, but until I did, there would always be a small part of me thinking about the album in the attic, and my father’s last words, “pictures…. attic…. burn them…. don’t look.”