It was a hot summer day when when Terence Hall found a photo-album.
He had come across this collection of photos when clearing out his mother's estate. She had died of a blood clot travelling to her heart shortly after a knee surgery. Eleanor Hall was found unresponsive, laying in her bathtub, her head poking barely above the surface of the cold water, her lips blue with sadness and her eyes shut in peace.
"What do you have there?" Clara asked. Clara was his wife and his best friend. She had agreed to come along and help him with this. Although she had never really been close to his mother, she felt that she was somehow responsible for helping with the estate.
"An old photo album."
Clara paused, her eyes searching the now closed cover of the album. The album cover was bright red leather with black twine stretching across the front, like a long black fence separating a red desert from it's twin. The album was somehow ominous in it's appearance.
"Where did you find it?" Clara asked.
"It was up in the attic."
"In a box?"
"No just sitting there on top of Ma's old curio cabinet."
Terence got up and walked over to the dining room table which was decorated with cute little porcelain figures that acted as different table amenities. The salt shaker was a boy who was proclaiming his love to Ms. Pepper via a basket of daisies. The napkin holder was a penguin lying on its back with its arms up in the air as if it had been a referee letting the fans know that a touchdown had been scored but had tripped backwards in his excitement.
Ma had always been like that: a collector. She had been obsessed with little cute trinkets that she would put everywhere (her favorites of these included a porcelain pig that had a spring, which made it fly up and down, and a wooden set of family totems; a father holding his son in his lap; a mother with her husband and their child enjoying a nice pose together; etc.) Her obsession was one common among older people, despite her not even being that old (she was 68).
Terence sat down at the head of the dining room table and opened the book flat on the table. The head had always been his favorite spot, him being the youngest and the receiver of hand-me-downs. Even though Terence had two older brothers, they had both died overseas when they joined the Military. First; Gerald, Terence's oldest brother, had died during a raid on an embassy in Iraq; Second; William, the middle child, had died during a EOD scan while patrolling through an unsearched town. That left Terence to sift through his mother's house all alone, finding the little things that might be worth anything sentimentally.
But he wasn't completely alone. He had Clara. The love of his life. She had asked herself if she could come along with him to Florida to help with his mother's estate and he had let her. Couples were supposed to do things together, and he would need someone for what he had to do.
The album, now open to the second page, was organized in chronological order. The beginning started before Gerry was even born. The pictures were pictures of Terence's mother and her husband with the occasional picture of them holding an animal of some sort. One was a particularly good picture with his mother, still young, holding a little kitten. They both seemed to share a sense of innocence, as they looked at each other, their eyes meeting to find some sort of understanding that they were both in for a wild ride as long as they were together. Terence remembered stories about how that kitten didn't last long and was eventually hit by a car. Flipping through, the pictures progressed through the story of his mother's life, Gerald being born, his long dead father holding Gerald in his arms with a grin that would make even the most avid hater of conservative white men smile. This hater would most likely be sad to hear that that man with the infectious smile would die from a heart attack three days after his third child had been born, robbing his son from a childhood that his two other children had the privilege of experiencing, causing that child to go into an unstoppable roll of added paranoia at his manhood and competence.
Finally, Terence got to the pictures of him, his dad holding him in that same way he held William and Gerald, his smile brimming from cheekbone to cheekbone, his white teeth shining a joyous blinding light back at the camera. He had never seen these pictures before. Why? Why had his mother never shown him these? Why had she never felt it best to show them to him whenever he went on a rant about how if his father ever really loved him, he would still be here instead of buried six feet underground? The smile and eyes that were portrayed on that man's face were features that exhibited love unfounded. If only he had known that as a child.
Terence felt angry at his mother. She had kept from him the things that might have changed his childhood for the better. But he felt deep in his heart that she loved him so much that she had to keep these photos a secret. Terence started to cry. Not tears of regret or sorrow, but, instead, tears of resolution. Tears that signified that he felt loved. Clara, who had stood over him for a long time, staring down at the album, neglecting to say a word, spoke now.
"Terence," she said, "look at him."
She said no more, but patted his back and rubbed his shoulder, the way a wife does to her husband to show that she loves him.
Terence reached up and grabbed his wife's hand. He kissed it and then went back to perusing the photo album.
He moved past his childhood, seeing all the scenes of him and his brothers goofing off with BB guns until one of them eventually got shot in the finger and started bleeding. He moved past the scenes of him and his brothers at the zoo, their mother standing over them and gripping their cheeks to make them smile (She had been able to ask a nice old lady to take the picture for them, even though the lady barely knew how to work the camera).
All of these scenes made Terence smile. It had been a long time since he had smiled for real. He had always been somebody to chuckle a little or guffaw slightly at a joke, but he had never truly felt happy until now. For some reason, seeing all of these photos of his past brought him back to that innocent time when he didn't have to worry about taxes or getting that report to his editor's desk by Friday or making sure the Wi-Fi bill is paid for. Those were the good times.
He shuffled faster and faster through the pictures of his childhood, the memories flocking into his mind like a mass migration of birds flying through a bottlenecked canyon to find peace in the oasis that awaited them below.
He had been shuffling for a solid minute and a half until finally he reached his mother's later years. More recent pictures of her. These pictures were odd. They were not taken by her. They seemed to be taken by somebody else. They were always of her cooking or cleaning or reading a book. Not a single one of those pictures featured her looking into the camera.
A blanket of gloom seemed to stretch out over the dining room now, Clara was disturbed a little bit. She was always quick to pick up on things that were out of the ordinary. She had paid attention to the photos and had noticed the same thing that Terence noticed.
The other person.
The photo they were looking at now was a photo of Terence's mom reading by a window at night, the room illuminated by the hanging lamp of her bedroom. It was an unassuming picture. Just a picture of an older woman reading The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky, by her bedroom window with all the lights lit and a reflection in the window that showed clearly a closet door slightly open with a man's face shoved into a camera.
Terence's heart stopped for a second, his mouth open and dry. He felt a heaviness that was akin to a kid giving a presentation in front of all of his friends and even his crush without knowing a bit of context as to what the presentation was about. A suffocating heaviness that would eek into the depths of one's mind and scramble the words you had so meticulously rehearsed. Except this heaviness was overflowing with cold dread.
Clara leaned in over Terence's shoulder. Terence didn't look at her. He didn't even look up from the picture, his eyes transfixed of the sneering face of the man in the closet with a camera. He flipped the page, Clara not protesting.
There was only one picture on that page. A picture of Terence's mom staring into the camera with a look of shock and fear, her eyes lit red by the flash of the camera.
Terence flipped the page.
There was only one picture on that page. A picture of Terrence's mom with a pillow over her face, her hands jutted out to the side and her legs cramped and tense.
Terence flipped the page.
There was only one picture on that page. A picture of Terrence's mom in the bath with her face barely rising over the surface of the water.
Terence shut the album.
He looked at Clara, fear enveloping their joint visage.
Terence heard a door slam outside the dining room.
Terence remained his vision on his wife, their eyebrows furrowed in confusion and terror. They dared not break form each others' gaze lest they fall into the darkness of whatever danger awaited them.
Terence heard a click.
A quick clicking sound.
Not the click of somebody's shoes on the floor.
Not the click of somebody's tongue flicking off the roof of their mouth.
It was the click of a camera.