The metal box rattled as she picked it up off the attic floor. Her fingers left marks in the dust frozen in time on the outside of the green-tinted box. Shaking it, she tried to guess it’s contents.
“Coins? No, it sounds like one item. A pen? One of Uncle Pat’s war medals? Maybe a magic diamond that will make me rich and I can move to Ireland and become a sheep farmer?” She chuckled at the last guess.
Looking at the latch she saw a dial lock, 4 digits, all sitting on 0.
“Let’s see, Uncle Pat wore 28 in hockey, and 25 in baseball, so how about 2825?” She dialed the numbers. Nothing. Still locked. She switched to 2528. Same results.
“Let’s try his birthday, 0702?” BINGO! “Guess Uncle Pat didn’t understand security if the code happens to be his birthday.”
The lid opened with a squeak. Too many years locked in an attic near a broken window created rusted latches.
She looked in the box and saw two items, not one. A picture of Pat standing amongst a group of fellow soldiers with his forearm on top of a horse. All the soldiers wore black knit caps, body armor, cargo pants, and carried weapons. The other item, a yellow roll of 35mm film, 100 speed film.
She looked at the photo again. Pat looked young in the picture. In fact, he was only born 8 years before Beth. Growing up in Upstate New York together, she remembered Pat more as an older brother and less as an uncle. He was the oopsies her grandparents never expected, 14 years younger than Beth’s mother. Pat and her grandparents took Beth in after her parents died in an accident. Up until last week, Beth and Pat were the only ones left. But Pat’s disappearance caused a ripple in her own timeline, hastily leaving before her residency finished with the promise to come back in a few weeks.
Turing over the picture, she read the words written on the back: Exercise Jumping Jacks, 2017, Orzysz. Where the heck is Orzysz? Taking out her phone, Beth pulled up her browser and searched; Poland. Pat never said he deployed to Poland? Searching for Exercise Jumping Jacks proved fruitless.
I wonder what’s on the film? I’ll drop it off on my way to get dinner.
Staring at the envelop, Beth sipped her wine. She wanted to enjoy looking at the pictures so she refrained from opening the envelope sooner. Was she afraid what she’d find? Maybe a bit. Pat sat atop a large pedestal for Beth. An uncle, brother, friend, and an all-around American hero wrapped up into one. All that might shatter after looking at the pictures.
Although still young, she remembered the day Pat received his appointment to West Point. Her grandparents beamed with pride. She remembered the trips to visit him before football games, watching him march into Michie Stadium with the Long Gray Line. How he stood tall. Then, the excitement when he graduated and became a 2nd Lt in the Army. She bragged about him to her friends; his success in leading soldiers during combat in the Middle East and the medals, ribbons, promotions all leading to a storybook career. Only to have that career cut short last year when Pat received a medical discharge/retirement due to PTSD. Beth remembered Pat crying while they talked on the phone. The devastation to Pat’s manly ego rocked Beth.
She looked into medical help and support groups for Pat. She thought she found the perfect fit, an organization that took veterans hiking, fishing, and camping. Phone conversations sounded more positive. Pat even talked about meeting a girl working at the organization and he appeared to be making progress. Until his disappearance.
Fear of changing her image of Pat froze Beth into a long stare at the envelope. Could the things hidden on this roll haunt Pat? But, curiosity and a desire to find her uncle broke the ice and she put her glass down, wiped her hands on her napkin, and opened the envelope.
The envelope trembled as she opened it. She took the entire set of pictures out. The first group of pictures appeared innocent. Pictures of Pat and his friends in both on duty and off duty situations. A group of guys playing ball hockey and BBQ pictures. Then, she laughed at the ones showing Pat driving Polaris ATVs with a huge grin on his face.
After a couple of off duty pictures, the images turned more serious. She saw soldiers strapped in airplanes seats, geared up and looking somber, no more play time. Some pictures were of a forest camp with tents and fires and soldiers dressed in both US and foreign uniforms. Looking at one of the foreign soldiers she recognized the Polish flag. I wonder if this has to do with the photo in the box? She slowed down and looked at the pictures closer. One picture showed a group of civilians dressed in very colorful outfits, riding carts, and walking horses. The next zoomed in on some women. Something looked familiar about the woman at the center of the picture leading the horses. A red shawl covered her shoulders. The next picture captured a group of soldiers talking with the red shawled woman and she appeared angry. The next picture showed 3 of Pat’s soldiers leading a horse away.
The last picture stopped her cold. Beth saw a slightly out of focus and weirdly angled close-up picture of the woman reaching towards the camera. It almost appeared like Pat clicked the button when he didn’t want to. One of those accidental pictures you didn’t realize you took. The hand looked the most in focus, however, the blurry look on the woman’s face displayed pure hatred. The eyes narrow. The mouth taunt. Beth almost dropped the picture. If a picture could be worth a thousand words, this picture only needed one word; evil.
Beth looked at the short series of pictures again. Something looked familiar and she couldn’t figure it out. Taking a sip of wine, she sat back in her chair. A few seconds later a small neuron sparked and she hustled into the living room. On a table sat the dusty box, inside just the single picture. Taking it out Beth realized the horse in the picture was the same horse in Pat’s photos. And, she noticed something on the back of the horse, the red shawl. Bringing the one picture back into the dining room she looked at the series again. Something still appeared missing.
Beth wandered around the house, almost lost. After a few minutes she ended up outside Pat’s room. He never moved from his old bedroom into the master bedroom after his parents passed away. Beth still slept in her mother’s room down the hallway when she stayed at the house. She slowly opened the door, turned on the light and walked in. Pat’s West Point sword hung in a case above his dresser and little mementos of his career dotted the shelves near the window. Pat referred to the items as his “I love me” wall (he also told Beth almost all military veterans had something similar.) The collection of ‘moments’ from a military career showed his successes, highlights, awards, and his commissioning certificate from West Point.
Alone on a small table near Pat’s desk stood a framed picture of Pat kneeling. He knelt in front of three sets of combat boots and upside-down rifles lined up in front of an American flag. Beth knew Pat lost soldiers during combat and Pat sustained injuries in the attack where his men died. The picture showed the bandages. This battle and his lost men lead to Pat’s PTSD. To him, Pat felt he failed. To him, Pat felt it was his fault.
Beth turned away from the table and almost fell over. On top of his bed lay the red shawl from the pictures. Beth picked up the shawl and looked at it closer. The work looked amazing. The little details surprised her since she couldn’t see them in the pictures. Little freckles of yellow and orange dotted the fabric. The freckles formed patterns in the shawl. As she held it up with both hands, she realized the pattern created the outline image of a horse.
When she arrived a few days ago, she investigated Pat’s room but didn’t take notice of his bed (except it looked slept in not made, which was unusual for Pat.) She saw the shawl but didn’t really focus on it, she focused more on the state of the bed. When she left, she closed the door. Now the neurons that sparked familiarity with the pictures over the last couple of hours fired hot. Pat must have taken the shawl when he came home from the exercise.
Beth felt her energy draining. She needed sleep and a night to process everything she learned today. Still holding the shawl, she stumbled back to the living room to turn off the lights and lock the door. Before heading to her room, she sat down on grandpa’s chair. The worn fabric felt comfortable and reassuring. She kept turning the shawl over in her hands. Trying to see if she could find anything else. A “made in” location maybe. But nothing. This appeared to be handmade. She stared at it for quite some time. Then, overcome by exhaustion, she fell asleep in the chair holding the shawl.
“Beth?!? Beth, is that you?”
Beth woke with a start. Her eyes opened wide, but the darkness made things difficult to see.
“Who’s there? Who is that?”
“Beth, it is you! Oh my God, how did you get here? What happened?”
Recognizing the voice Beth shot a string of questions in one breath. “Pat? Is that you? When did you get home? Where were you? Where are you? I can’t see you. People have been looking for you. What time is it?”
“Beth, slow down. I’m not home and neither are you.”
“What?” Not home? What do you mean we’re not home?’
She finally felt Pat’s hand and he helped her sit up. In doing so, she realized she was sitting on a dirt floor.
“We’re not home. I am not 100% sure where we are, but I know who we’re with. A few years ago, my team did an exercise and we jumped out of a plane somewhere in Poland, but the plane had some navigation issues and we ended up outside our jump area. It took us a few days to make it to a spot where we could get rescued. While making our way, we crossed paths with a group of Gypsies. From what I can tell, we’re in that group’s camp.”
“Gypsies? Stop. You and Grandpa used to threaten to sell me to the Gypsies when I was younger and it scared me then, but I know now there’s no such group. So, stop trying to scare me, I’m not 8 anymore. “
“Beth, Gypsies are real. They’re groups of nomadic people in and around Europe. I remember this group. We took a horse from them and one woman was not happy about it. She came after us.”
Beth remembered the pictures. She remembered the one that scared her. The woman’s expression etched in her mind. “Wait, the pictures on the roll of film in the box were pictures of Gypsies?”
“You found the roll and developed the pictures? I never developed them for fear what was on the roll. The woman I remember put a curse on us, me specifically. She attacked us when we took the horse. One of my guys grabbed her and pulled her away as I tried to push her away. I ended up grabbing ahold of her shawl and that’s when she cursed me. I can’t remember what she said because it was in broken English. We took the horse with us and I put the shawl on the horse to keep him from getting rub marks carrying our gear. For some reason, after the mission, the guys thought I should keep the shawl, so I brought it home.”
‘Wait, the red shawl? I found it on your bed. I was looking at it when I fell asleep.”
Both Beth and Pat realized at the same time the shawl lay draped over her legs.
At that moment, a flap opened on the tent and a figure peered down at them holding a torch. Beth immediately recognized the woman from the pictures. The scowl on her face had not improved as she reached down towards Beth.
At daybreak both Pat and Beth stood tied to a tree in front of a group of colorfully dressed people. Beth recognized their outfits as similar to the pictures from Pat’s roll of film. The woman stood in the middle of the group, leading the discussion, pointing at the two captives and holding the red shawl. Beth understood nothing of what the group said, but she could tell it did not look good for her and Pat. Pat started to whisper some of what he understood to her. A bit about a horse, some soldiers, the shawl, and a curse, then Beth felt him tense up.
“She just said she cursed the shawl. Anyone who fell asleep under it would find themselves in front of the Gypsie gods to make amends for stealing a horse. I was cold the night I ended up here and placed it on top of my blanket. You fell asleep with it directly on you. That may be why it also came with you, direct contact.”
Beth shook her head. What did Pat mean? How could a shawl transport them?
The group finished discussing and turned towards Pat and Beth. For some reason, Beth noticed an open and fresh wound on one of the Gypsies. Her mind immediately went through her medical assessment. He needed medical attention for his shoulder. She operated on a case similarly about 4 months ago due to traumatic shoulder displacement.
The woman Beth recognized walked right up to Pat and started shouting at him. Again, Beth understood nothing. Pat tried pleading their case but the woman just raised her voice and tempo right back at him. For several minutes they shouted at each other, until the wounded Gypsie fell. A crowd quickly gathered around him, and appeared to call for help. Beth couldn’t understand, but their motions made her think this way.
“Please, please untie me. I am a doctor and I can help your friend.” Beth shouted.
The woman looked right at her. “Doctor?”
“Yes, I am a doctor. I can help your friend.”
The woman made a quick movement with her hands and others freed Beth from the rope. Beth immediately advanced on the man to take a look and start helping. Meanwhile, Pat’s guards brought him back into the tent, away from the commotion.
For about 2 hours Pat sat alone in the tent. For the first 45 mins he heard shouting from outside. Once or twice he even heard Beth’s voice barking orders. Then, all became quiet. Pat could hear his heartbeat, his breathing, the wind.
The tent flap opened and the woman walked in alone. She stood over Pat.
“Where is my niece? Where is Beth?”
“Yes, she is a doctor. Is she all right? Can I see her please?”
The woman reached out towards Pat, touching him on the forearm. “Doctor stay. You go. Doctor pay your crime.”
Pat looked at her confused, but soon felt his eyes drooping, closing beyond his desire to keep them open.
Pat woke in his bed. For days he looked for Beth. He tried to channel whatever power he could from the pictures. Nothing worked. Pat’s devastation in losing another loved one, and again, most likely because of his failings caused him to withdraw from society. He didn’t reply to the girl he met. He didn’t go back to the group helping him with PTSD. In fact, his PTSD grew deeper.
Six months later a package with overseas postage arrived in his mailbox. His hand trembled as he opened the package. Inside he found a letter and an envelope. On the outside of the envelope, he recognized Beth’s handwriting. Open second…read the letter first…Love you!
“Pat. I am well and safe. The Gypsies took me as payment for what they thought was your slight and are keeping me as punishment to you. When they knew I could heal their sick and mend their injured, they realized I was worth more to them than a shawl and horse. I am learning their language, their customs and their way of life. Esmeralda (the woman in your pictures) is the Chieftain and she has taken me under her wing. I know I am where I belong now. Don’t worry about me anymore.
Now open the envelope.”
Pat opened the envelope. Inside were two items. A picture and a small swath of read cloth with a note wrapped around it. The note read “Be careful, only hold this when you sleep and want to come visit. Esmeralda put a spell on it for you to travel, just not a cursed travel. See you soon! Beth”
Pat smiled. He knew where the red cloth came from. He recognized the yellow and orange freckles.
Next, he picked up the photograph. Beth, wearing the red shawl, looked happy, standing next to Esmeralda. A group of Gypsies in the background also wore smiles. Pat’s heart smiled and warmed. Finally, he hadn’t lost someone.
Turning the picture over Pat saw a quick note: “You finally sold me to the Gypsies!”