He picked through the rubble of what had been his childhood home, looking for anything that might be kept as a souvenir. Bryon meticulously opened drawer after drawer in the kitchen before moving on to the cupboards and then searching under piles of old papers and leaves that had been left to blow arbitrarily through the broken home, lifted by even the gentlest of breezes as it wafted through from the missing front door to the broken patio glass. He hadn’t been back there since that night.
Memories would occasionally surface in his mind of the life they had lived as a family in Mojave Heights before everything had happened. They spent many nights sitting at the dining table that had been positioned just to the left of where he was standing. His father always sat at the head of the table, and his mother sat opposite him. Bryon’s older sister and younger brother sat across from Bryon, and the five of them spent many nights playing card games like War or Go Fish. He remembered the rules with a cringing familiarity. They were not allowed to use anything that required electricity or batteries outside of the house lights and refrigerator on weekdays. That meant they could read, but they couldn’t watch television. They could play card games, but no video games. They could go visit friends, but not call them. They could play music, but they couldn’t listen to it. The rules seemed so strange to the kids at the time, but once the rules no longer existed, Bryon didn’t mind so much. He had lots of great memories to look back on, like the time his brother got mad that his mom kept winning at Go Fish and tried to cheat, but the cards fell out of his large sweater sleeve, right in front of everyone.
Slowly he wandered up the cracked and decayed steps to the second floor, where he and his brother Mark had shared a bedroom. The carpets had long since been torn out, but he knew exactly where the bunk bed had been just as clearly as if the impressions were still there in the cheap rug, now long gone. Nothing remained in the closet, but he could almost see shadows of where his Spiderman costume once hung. His sister Maggie's room was next door, his parents down the hall. The last room to look at would be the bathroom, he acknowledged.
For five people in one home, having only a single bathroom had been a nightmare for the family. They had to take turns, which meant extra time in the mornings. Nobody was allowed to be in the bathroom for more than five minutes, and to a young boy that can be torture. There was nowhere else to go if he’d ever wanted to be alone as a child. Bryon glanced at his watch, entered the bathroom and closed the door.
“Five minutes, huh? We’ll just see about that.” He chuckled to himself, curious to know what his mother would do if she knew. He glanced around the room briefly and laughed, realizing there was nothing to entertain him for the next five minutes aside from his cell phone, and with it being a weeknight, it felt strange to break more than one rule at a time in his childhood home.
He pulled open the cabinet beneath the sink to peek at the darkness within. An old ponytail holder and a couple cotton tips lingered in the back, barely touched by the elements after all those years. He bent down to inspect the ponytail holder, wondering if it had been his sisters or his mothers, when his foot struck the baseboard at the front of the cabinet. It sounded hollow enough to garner his attention.
Bryon backed away from the sink and looked at the baseboard, which seemed to be hanging at an angle. He pried his fingers into the sides of each end and pulled. With only minimal effort, the baseboard came loose and opened a small space beneath that he never knew had existed in all his years in the home. Stunned, he crouched lower on the floor to see further into the darkness. There wasn’t much visible and the space was dark, but he still didn’t want to break the ‘no electronics or batteries’ rule, more for sport than anything, so he wouldn’t use his phone as a flashlight. He figured the chances of being bitten by anything were slim enough that he should just go for it, so he thrust his arm into the open space to feel around. His fingers struck a couple different objects that he pulled out, one at a time.
First came a small golden key. It looked like the key to a child’s diary, and Bryon guessed it probably had belonged to his sister. She hated it when Bryon and his brother would sneak into her room and read her private thoughts, but they always made the boys laugh. Second came a larger key. This one appeared to be a functioning key made for a house door or an old lock. It didn’t seem familiar, and Bryon slid it to the side. Third, Bryon pulled out an old roll of film, still within the original plastic case. Curious, he held it in his hand and stared at it a moment, as though that would reveal the contents within. He stuffed the film and two keys into his pocket, feeling as though he’d found the souvenirs he’d been searching for, and glanced back at his watch.
Six minutes. HA!
Bryon looked around the home one last time as he made his way slowly toward the front door. He’d spent many good years there, but it was finally time to leave it all behind.
“Hey Luba,” he sighed into the phone at his wife. “I just left the old place. It was weird being back there.”
“Did you find what you were looking for?”
“I don’t know,” Bryon answered her honestly. “I mean, I went looking for some sort of closure, but I found a couple of other things too.”
“I found what looks like an old diary key of my sisters, a key to something else, and an old roll of film.”
“A roll of film? Oh my gosh, I haven’t even seen a roll of film since I was a kid. What’s on it?” Luba was always supportive of Bryon when he talked about his family, but this curiosity went beyond that.
“I don’t know. You think I should get it developed?”
“Yeah, of course! Why wouldn’t you?”
“What if it has something on it that I don’t want anyone to see?” Bryon had genuine cause for concern. As many good memories as he had in that house, there were a lot of hidden secrets, too.
“I think all film is processed using machines these days. I don’t think anyone will see what’s on it. The machine does all the work and then shoves it into an envelope. I mean, as far as I know that’s how it works but we can ask. I’ll call the drug store and see.” Luba was more curious about the film than Bryon was, she realized. There was a lot about his childhood that Bryon never really told her about, but what could be so bad that he would be afraid of old camera film?
“Yeah, can you? I love you. I’ll be home in a bit,” Bryon finalized, and the two hung up. His heart pounded in his chest. He hoped Luba was wise enough to not call the nearest drugstore to ask, or he’d be forced to take the film farther from home to have it developed. That probably wasn’t a bad idea anyway, he acknowledged.
By the time he pulled into the driveway two hours later, Luba was already outside waiting for him. She was bundled up in her warmest jacket, hugging herself from the dip in temperature they’d experienced in the Adelanto high desert recently. She hurried to the passenger side of the old car and climbed in.
“Okay, let’s go,” she grinned at him.
“To the drug store,” she grinned at him quizzically. “The processing is done by a machine and that goes for all the Rite-Pharm locations in the state. I called the one in Apple Valley so you can take it to any location you want and they won’t know about the call.”
“God, I love you,” Bryon grinned at her and leaned over for a kiss.
“I know,” she grinned, referencing their favorite film, and kissed him back.
By the time they got to the drug store they only had 20 minutes before closing, but Bryon had driven over an hour away just to be safe. The sign out front advertised one hour photo services, but he knew there was no way they could get that done. They’d have to wait until the next day to pick everything up again. They went inside, requested the single print service to be available the following afternoon, and made the long drive back home. Neither spoke much, and Luba knew Bryon had a lot on his mind.
“It won’t be that bad,” Luba tried to reassure him, patting his arm.
“I can only hope,” he nodded, praying she was right.
After work the next day Bryon drove the hour back to the drug store to pick up the photos that scared him so badly his hands were shaking as he reached out to collect them from the clerk’s hand. Still fearful, he didn’t even open the envelope to see what was inside. Instead, he paid at the register, got back into his car, and drove the hour back home, only glancing at the envelope a couple of times. He wasn’t sure what to do with it, so he chose to do nothing. Luba would help him. She was good at that.
He entered the house to the smell of fresh cookies. Luba, being the amazingly supportive wife that she had always been, knew this would be an emotionally torturous day for him and was doing what she could to make it just that much better. He smiled to himself, forgetting the envelope in his hand for a moment. How had he gotten so lucky?
“Is that them?” Luba bounced around the corner, grinning at Bryon the way only she could.
“Yeah,” Bryon nodded, morosely.
“What’s wrong? What’s in it?”
“I don’t know yet,” Bryon admitted, feeling somewhat sheepish to be so frightened of photos.
“Well, let's grab some cookies and take a look,” she patted him on the small of his back, knowing the cookies would help tremendously in leveling his mood. A plate of fresh oatmeal cranberry cookies rested in the middle of the table with two tall glasses of chocolate milk. Bryon sat down, plopped the envelope carelessly on the table, and reached for the top cookie. Luba kissed his cheek and sat beside him at the table. “Let’s take a look, shall we?”
Luba gingerly opened the envelope, as though it contained sheets of delicate gold, primed for turning to dust with any quick movements. She reached her nimble, slim fingers under the photos. Slowly, as though handling a duck egg, she slipped them from the envelope and held them out to Bryon.
“I can’t. I need you to…,” he paused, not sure how to finish the sentence.
“I got you,” she grinned, knowingly.
The first photo was a close up of Bryon’s mother, showing an apple to the camera. Her mouth hung open and she seemed to be shouting in joy. Behind her in the frame stood an apple tree. Bryon could only guess that she’d picked an apple and someone had taken a photo of her to capture the sheer happiness on her face. How he missed that face. Luba moved it to the back of the pile to reveal the next photo.
The second photo was similar to the first in that his mother was holding an apple still, but was taking a bite out of it. His sister was in the background, picking one of her own from the tree. They seemed happy. He remembered when they were happy. Luba moved that one to the back of the pile, too.
The third photo was one of Bryon himself, sitting at the dining room table with his brother and sister, playing cards. Neither their mother or father were in the photo, and Bryon started to believe maybe the camera had belonged to his father since he was the only one not showing up in any photos so far. Luba followed the other photos with this one.
“These don’t look so bad,” she smiled at him, reaching for another bite of her cookie.
“No, they’re not so bad,” Bryon agreed. “I don’t know what I was afraid of.” He took a swig of his milk and offered to take the photos from Luba’s hands. She declined, and revealed the next photo.
Bryon was standing with his mother and siblings on the back porch of their home, and his mother was holding a puppy. Everyone seemed so happy there together. Bryon was sitting on the steps, his mother was leaning on the railing, and his two siblings were sitting on what looked like a large metal case with a latch on it, half hidden beneath the porch. There, on the latch, was a large lock that looked as though it would need a key to open. He didn’t say anything at first, but instead he reached out a hand and pointed. Luba saw it too.
“What is that,” she asked.
“I’m not sure, but,” he reached into his pocket and pulled out the keys he’d found with the film. “I’m wondering if this key would open it.” Chills shot up and down his spine. “Keep going. But slowly.” Bryon watched as Luba lifted the photo to reveal the next one down.
It was darker than the others, as though it was taken in a dark room. It was hard to make out what they were looking at, but the sinking feeling grew. He knew this wasn’t good.
“The next one,” he grew morose, knowing without having to guess what would be revealed in the next photo. He’d seen things like that before. He wished he hadn’t. Luba was still not sure. “Brace yourself,” he warned her. She leaned back a little, looked at Bryon a moment, and looked back at the photos. Slowly, with building anxiety, she revealed the next photo.
It was a woman, naked from the waist down and in the fetal position. She had strange scratch marks all over her body and deep red marks around her throat, as though she’d been strangled to death. Her cloudy eyes told a story of their own. Luba and Bryon both understood her to be dead. Both of them recoiled, but neither were strangers to the horror. Bryon had recently been promoted to his department’s head Detective, and Luba had spent 20 years working for the county coroner.
The next photo was a different woman, sitting upright in a chair, but with similar scratches on her arms and legs, and red strangulation marks around her neck. Luba glanced at Bryon.
“Should I keep going?”
“Yeah,” he replied, regretting the internal drive he now felt to find out the truth. He didn’t want to look, but he knew he needed to. He’d long suspected his father had been the serial killer, the unknown Alphabet Murderer, and he may have finally stumbled on the proof that had been missing since the 1980’s. Luba always knew of Bryon’s suspicion, but never really believed it herself.
The next several photos were more women, each different, all naked from the waste down. Each had been strangled to death, and a few still had pantyhose or shoe laces tied around their throats. As hard as it was to keep looking at the photos, the two of them knew it was a necessity. They needed to see all of them. They’d turn them in to the police the following day, of course, but they needed to see the evidence before that.
The last three photos were all that remained. Bryon took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and nodded. Luba took the top photo and slid it under the others, careful to keep everything in order still.
It was another photo of his mother, Mary Martinez. Except in this one, she wasn’t smiling. She wasn’t picking apples. She wasn’t enjoying the sunshine or playing with a new puppy. She was, as the others had been, naked from the waist down. She had a noose around her neck. Bryon recoiled, tears biting at his eyes.
“Mom,” he whispered softly.
“Oh my God,” Luba looked on in horror.
The next photo was of her again, this time joined by his two siblings. All three of them were dead. There was only one photo remaining.
Luba revealed the last image. There in the photo, beside the back door of their old home, the large metal chest had been opened. Inside sat thousands of rolls of film, and on top of it all, his sister’s childhood diary with her initials "M.M." on the cover.