01 Feb I Found This Photo from My Childhood, I Noticed Something Horrifying In the Background
Your stuff is over there on the left.”
Mom gestured vaguely toward the back of the storage room, and I scanned the stack of brown cardboard boxes. On each, my father’s handwriting spelled out “Kids’ Rooms” in unhelpful black Sharpie.
“You’re going to have to be more specific Momma.”
I chuckled a bit, but my voice must have betrayed some frustration at a long day spent moving furniture. Before I’d even finished the sentence, she stalked over to my corner of the storage room with the wordless sense of urgency that, despite nearly a decade of living on my own, I still associated with impending doom.
Still silent, she cut through the tape on a box just to my left. Then, head shaking and eyebrows raised, Mom returned to her own stack of boxes and kept unpacking. I waited until she was safely across the room to start looking through my belongings
I stared at the box, hands on my hips, as I examined its contents.
“What should I do with the stuff I want to keep?”
“Just leave it in the box, Dan. That way you won’t have to re-pack everything when you take it back to New York”
I started to explain that my postage stamp of an apartment barely had room for what few possessions my bartender’s budget provided, let alone childhood keepsakes. But, as if anticipating the response, Mom cut me off.
“Your father and I don’t have the space to keep everything here.”
I looked pointedly around the cavernous storage room, and swallowed another retort. Childhood relics practically burst from the box in front of me, and I rifled past old composition books, dented sports trophies, grass-streaked jerseys, a banged-up old laptop, and even a questionably-stained Santa hat. Some brought fond memories. Others brought a cringe. All went straight into a black plastic trash bag at my feet.
Graded assignments filled the next box. At first, bright red As adorned the wrinkled papers. But the box must have been organized chronologically, because the grades soon became Bs, and then before long, Cs and Ds. These, too, went into the bag.
It wasn’t until I’d worked through six more boxes—and with them nearly a half hour of nostalgia—that I stumbled across something I wanted to keep.
A photo album.
It was small. Just wide enough that a standard 4×6 picture—the kind that used to be developed from a roll of film—could fit one to each page. The outside was bound in cushiony green faux-leather, with little metal bits binding the edges. It was made to look fancy, but surely cost no more than a few dollars—the sort of thing one might buy at a mall kiosk.
I flipped it open.
A blonde-haired kid with bright blue eyes stared back at me. He was dressed in a green linen robe, and holding what looked to be a plastic shepherd’s cane. I sputtered, and looked up to show my mother. But, at some point while I’d been lost in the boxes, she’d gone inside. I looked back down to the photo, and memories of the long-forgotten school play came rushing back. Smiling, I turned the page.
The next picture showed a little blonde me next to a nearly identical boy with his arm around my shoulder. The two kids in the photo had the same blue eyes, the same crooked smile, and the same dimpled cheeks. Only one feature was different. The young version of me had a McCauley Culkin bowl cut of white-blonde hair so bright that I can remember adults asking if I bleached it. The other child—Matt—had the same bowl cut. But his was an unremarkable, almost colorless shade of sandy brown.
My grin faded, and I rubbed a hand over my chest, just above my heart. Then, hoping to find more memories like the first one, I flipped the page.
Thankfully, the next picture showed the little blonde version of me chasing after a soccer ball. The one after that showed me roller skating, hand in hand with a girl of the same age. And the album went on like that, with page after page of idyllic scenes from a happy childhood. I couldn’t remember living out each one of them. But most brought at least a fond feeling, and my wide grin returned as I leafed through the photos.
That is, until I reached the end.
The final picture in the album seemed at first to be just like all the rest. In it, I sat amongst other kids, all making silly faces, and looking generally happy. I had pulled another kid across my knees and the same girl I’d been holding hands with in the roller-skating photo (What was her name?) sat next to me. It looked like a scene from a field day of some kind, or maybe a graduation. Two of my Mom’s friends laughed together in the background, and a red-headed kid next to my friends stared into the distance. I nearly closed the album with that wistful grin still fixed to my face.
When, I spotted it.
Behind the girl’s head, poking out just above her hair, was a face. Below it, a child-sized body wore the same green school shirt as the rest of us. But, the face itself seemed distended and stretched—almost inhuman.
And his eyes were black.
I stared at the picture, and brought the album close enough to brush my nose. And I looked into those vacant, black eyes. And I thought of the picture with my brother. I could almost hear Matt whisper, “just smile.” And I could almost feel his hand, digging into my elbow . . .
I closed the photo album with a pop. Then, rubbing the familiar spot on my chest, I moved toward the trash bag full of discarded memories.
But, something nibbled at the back of my mind. I can’t verbalize the feeling exactly, but I felt somehow like throwing the photos away would be . . . wrong. So, I put the small album into my back pocket, crossed the manicured lawn between the storage room and my parents’ new house, and went inside.
I should have thrown it away.
“Dan, Uber will be here two.”
My dad’s booming voice echoed down the still-empty hallway of my parents’ new house. I’d been gazing into the photo, and the call snapped me out of my reverie. How long had I been staring? The photo fluttered to my bed.
I tugged on a pair of khakis, then shouldered into a collared shirt, examining my reflection in the room’s full length-mirror as I did so. Including the bed, the near-ceiling height mirror represented exactly half the furniture in my room. Well, not my room, I thought, but rather the room I’d sleep in when I visited my parents.
My reflection stared back at me. The white blonde hair had faded to a sandy, drab brown much like my brother’s. My skin stretched taught over sharp cheekbones, and dark circles—the calling card of night-shift workers the world over—ringed bloodshot eyes.
I looked like shit.
I leaned closer to the mirror, as if staring for long enough might improve my appearance.
Something flashed in my reflection and I jumped backwards with a yelp. For a moment, so fast I couldn’t sure it had actually happened, I’d seen my eyes—my reflection’s eyes—flash a deep, empty black.
Slowly, I looked back to the glass. My eyes were blue. The same blue from the childhood photos. I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding, and shook my head
Hands trembling, I began to fumble with the buttons on my shirt. It took a few tries, but I managed to fasten the lowest few after a moment. Then, higher up, I paused, as I always did, at the scar just above my heart. Once a vivid pink, the raised mark had, over the years, turned a faint, pallid white. I ran a finger over the scar. Though it had faded, the raised mark still felt unmistakably, perversely, like a smiley face: two dots, and a curve underneath.
I thought again of the photo laying on my bed. I thought of that stretched, inhuman face. And I thought of those deep, dark eyes. Like the eyes I’d seen in my reflection, just a moment ago.
Surely, I mused, the odd face had just been another kid, and the image had been distorted by a trick of the light, or some other issue with 1990s film technology. And surely I had been seeing things in the mirror.
My Dad’s voice again interrupted my thoughts.
“Uber’s here, Dan.”
I buttoned my shirt over the scar, then hurried to join my family.
“I’m so sorry for the delay, folks.” The hostess chirped, “Your table will be ready in five minutes.”
“Yeah, well, you said that ten minutes ago.” Matt snapped at her, only half turning to face the young woman.
Her face fell a bit, but, to her credit, she maintained a bolted-on service-industry smile.
“Matt . . .” My Dad admonished halfheartedly. My brother didn’t seem to notice.
“We’re . . . we’re so sorry again about the delay,” the hostess replied, stuttering a bit. She couldn’t’ have been older than nineteen. “We’ll be right with you.”
She hurried off into the dimly-lit restaurant, and my brother’s withering glare followed her into the dining room. I barely registered the interaction. I could think only of the photo. When had it been taken? How old had I been? Which school was it? These questions echoed through my brain, even as the hostess returned to lead us toward our table.
“I’m sorry I snapped at you earlier,” Matt said as we sat down. The hostess gave a thin, nervous smile, then scurried away.
“I was nice of you to apologize.” My Mom squeezed Matt’s arm as the four of us settled around at the heavy wood table. I couldn’t even muster an eye roll.
The picture bounced around my skull for the rest of the evening. I barely noticed the meal, or the festive decorations that adorned the restaurant’s walls. And, even as a bottle of red wine emboldened my parents, I gave only halfhearted non-answers to their questions of when I planned to finish college, and what I was going to do with my life.
Throughout the meal, the car ride home, and even as I laid in the empty, dark bedroom that night, I could think only of the photo. And of those vacant black eyes.
I woke up to a brief moment of blessed peace. But, before long, the photo came rushing back to mind, and I could once again think only of those eyes. I rolled out of bed and found the picture on the ground where it had fallen from my hands as I fell asleep. I studied the image.
The green school shirt had the years 1999 and 2000, circled around a logo. That would have been second grade. Had I switched to private school yet? I examined the mascot on the shirt: A cat of some kind. The public school then.
Still holding the photo, I crossed the empty hallway into the kitchen. I had to find the scene where the picture had been taken. I don’t know why. Maybe for the same reason I couldn’t throw the album away.
“Morning Dan,” my mother called vaguely over a newspaper.
“Mom can I borrow the Jeep?”
“Sure, keys are on the counter.” She didn’t look up from the paper. “Where are you headed?” I was already walking away though, and she asked the question to my back. I didn’t respond.
I found the old Wagoneer parked at the end of the stone walkway that led from the street to my parents’ front door. Its wood paneling remained immaculate, somehow, despite nearly forty years in the family. I patted the old woody affectionately and turned the key in the door.
The musty scent of the car’s shag-carpet upholstery brought to mind scenes of high school parties, and evenings when I probably shouldn’t have driven home. At the first turn of the ignition, the car mustered only a sputter. But, after two attempts, its old engine coughed reluctantly to life.
I tapped the name of my old school into Google Maps. I spent so little time in my hometown, I needed directions practically everywhere. And my parents’ new address didn’t help. As I drove through the neighborhood though, the scenes became familiar, if changed a bit by the city’s breakneck development, and I followed the directions toward the school.
I pulled past a welcome sign, emblazoned with the cat mascot, through a campus emptied by the Winter break. The place had changed little over the years. A row of brick schoolhouse buildings sat vacant, blinds down and darkened, near a wood chip mulch playground. Though I hadn’t visited in some time, I still knew the layout well, and it didn’t take long to find the parking lot. I pulled the aging wagon into a spot close to the sidewalk. And when I turned the key in the ignition, the old beast went silent with a sputter that sounded almost like relief.
I pulled the picture from my pocket. That face. Those eyes. It took me a moment to take in the other details of the photo. It looked like we were sitting on a set of stone steps. Or an amphitheater. I walked toward the playground, looking up from the picture to scan the school grounds.
The steps had been by a big empty field, I remembered. Which must have been near the playground. The school grounds weren’t that big. I crossed the mulch, passing a swing set, and spotted the steps off in the distance. There, behind the squat, brick school building, a bit overgrown now, sat the gray mottled stone steps.
I thought I spotted a figure, sitting on one of the steps in the distance. But I couldn’t be sure. I sped up.
The small form came more sharply into view as I got closer. I couldn’t make out many details, but could tell now, that the figure wore a green shirt. I called out, “Hey!” but the figure didn’t move.
Closer now, I stopped dead, and my stomach dropped. The scene was unmistakable. Three gray stone steps, wide and long, framed by tall, trees, bare in the winter. And there, on the first step, where, in the photo, I’d sat smiling with my friends, was a kid. In a green shirt. With a sandy, nondescript, brown bowl cut. His head was down, though, and I couldn’t’ see his face.
I stopped and stared. But, just as I opened my mouth to speak, to ask the kid who he was, and what he was doing here, at the empty school, during Christmas break, his head snapped up, so fast that I barely registered the motion.
The kid’s face was twisted and stretched, beyond human proportions. It looked almost like he’d been burned, but his skin didn’t have the shiny, raised, keloid quality of scarring. He had all the features of a human face, but each was twisted and wrong in some way. His mouth was small, puckered, and almost circular, but still somehow stretched into a warped close-mouth grin. His nose was smashed flat.
And his eyes were black
His eyes were not the color black. But, black is the best I can do to describe the emptiness where his eyes should have been.
His eyes were black and I was falling.
His eyes were black and Matt was pushing me to the ground.
His eyes were black and my brother’s friends were holding me down and their eyes were black.
His eyes were black and I was small and I couldn’t fight back and my brother was grinning when he pressed the white-hot twisted metal wire hanger down onto my chest and his eyes were black and his friends were laughing and I smelled cooking meat and I screamed and smoke rose from my chest and wafted up into my mouth and into my eyes were black and it burned and it burned and it burned and his eyes were black.
I came to in the grass by the steps. Climbing slowly to wobbling legs, I rubbed the old scar over my heart, and dusted my pants off. The warped, twisted kid was gone.
In a daze, I made my way carefully back to the old Wagoneer. The beast rattled to life. On auto-pilot, I backed out of the small parking lot, and drove slowly into the surrounding neighborhood. At least ten minutes passed before I realized that I had no idea where I was going. So, I pulled over, tapped my parents’ new address into Google Maps, and still-shaking, followed the brief route home.
I parked in front of the house and made my way up the stone walkway. Still moving automatically, I turned the key in the lock. It was already open. I passed my Mom. She said something. I didn’t answer.
I sat on my bed for I’m not sure how long. I could think only of those black eyes.
At some point, I heard a knock on the door, and I didn’t answer, but it creaked open anyway.
“You alright Dan?” Matt asked the question in a tone that indicated he didn’t much care what the answer was.
“Just smile man.”
I looked up. My brother was grinning.
And his eyes were black.