Fiction Mystery

Faded by time and storage, the photo lay hidden in a beat up box. It was a picture of my family from a vacation that I did not recognize. I flipped the photo over to see if anything was written there. All it said was “taken by Hazel, December 1999.” I turned the photo back around and stared at it intently. My mother, sister, and brother were standing in front of an enormous rock formation. They were all smiling with their arms wrapped around each other. In 1999, I, Hazel, was 15 years old and in my moody teen years. If memory serves, we took one vacation that year, but it was in the summertime. Actually, summer was the only time that we took vacations because of my Mom’s work schedule. It baffled me that we would take a trip in December. I wondered about the dates of the trip. In 1999, the world was preoccupied with the beginning of the Millennium. The Doomsday Preppers prepped, and the Doomsday Preachers preached. Was that the reason we went on the trip? It couldn't have been. My Mom was and still is one of the most down to earth people a person could know. I stared intently at the photo, searching for any clue that might help me remember. In the photo my family was smiling and they looked happy. Or so it seemed…

Let me backup a bit and explain how I found the photo. The story began with dinner at my mom’s and family photos. The dishes were cleared and both of us were sitting at the dining room table drinking coffee and nibbling on some brownies. As we talked, the discussion turned to some family photos that mom had just unearthed in the attic. I told her I wasn't too interested in going through them, but she insisted so, I said yes. I’m not one of those people that likes to reminisce about the past, but I love my Mom so I gave her this. Little did  I know, my world was going to be turned upside down and inside out all at the same time.

I went into the living room while my mom headed to her room to get the photos. She returned a few moments later with a box covered in dust with tape holding one side together. 

“I guess I should have cleaned the box up before I showed it to you, but I was so excited to show you the photos inside,” Mom said as she settled into her favorite chair, an old faded navy recliner that needed to have been thrown away years ago.

“It’s no problem, Mom,” I replied, making a mental note to take some allergy medication when I got home. I had settled in on her couch, a thrift store find that she would tell anyone and everyone how much she paid for it.

Mom lifted the box lid, sending a cloud of dust particles in my direction. I managed to stifle the sneezing and coughing so I could pay attention to my mom and the photos. The top few photos were old department store shots of my family in stiff clothes and fake smiles. In one my younger sister's eyes were closed and my brother’s tie was crooked. I understood why Mom tucked this gem away from prying eyes. The next few photos were blurry with someone’s thumb in the corners. I leaned in closer to try and discern where the photos were taken. All I could make out were some trees and maybe a lake. 

“Any idea where this one was taken?” I showed Mom the photos hoping she would know. She pulled on her bifocals that she kept on a chain around her neck.

“Oh, these were taken by your sister that year we went to the mountains to camp,” Mom answered. “Remember, she pitched a fit to use the camera. So, in order to keep the peace, I let her take them. The day we picked these photos up she was so excited. She didn’t even seem to notice how awful they were.” Mom stopped for a moment and took a deep breath and cleared her throat. Without saying a word, I handed her the kleenex box on the coffee table. Mom grabbed a handful and started dabbing at her eyes. Talking about my sister was still hard for her, it had only been five years since she had passed away.

I let her gather her thoughts while I continued looking through the photos. I could have stopped and hugged and let us both have a good cry, but I couldn’t do that. I had spent too much time these past five years crying over her. I missed her terribly, but my tears had run dry.

The next few photos were more awkward department store fair mixed in with Christmas with my grandmother. My sister and I stood in front of a Christmas tree, grinning while my Mom was in the background handing out Christmas presents. I secretly put the Christmas one aside to take home. That was when I saw the photo in question. A photo I supposedly took on a vacation I couldn’t remember. 

I turned the snapshot to Mom and asked, “Mom do you remember this trip? The back says I took it, but I can’t for the life of me remember it.”

My mom looked up and the color drained from her face. She reached over and snatched the photo back with such a force that a corner of the photo tore off and fluttered to the floor.

“What’s wrong with you?” A mixture of anger and concern flashed across my face as I bent down to retrieve the torn piece.

“Leave it,” Mom said in an authoritarian tone.

“Mom, what's going on? What is it about this photo that has you so upset?”

She didn't reply,  just started stuffing all the photos back in the box. I sat and watched her, not daring to make a move. Finally, she stood up, box in hand, and left the room without saying another word. I waited a minute or two before following. I needed answers and my Mom had them.

Mom met me in front of her bedroom door. I opened my mouth to speak, but she cut me off.

“Just let it go, Hazel. Forget you ever saw that photo! It's in the past and there's nothing you can do about it.”


“I said NO, HAZEL!” Mom raised her voice several octaves. I flinched, not expecting her to yell like that. It reminded me of my old elementary school teachers when the class got too rowdy.

“If that's how you want to play this Mom, then fine. I won't ask anymore questions.” I had to placate her for the moment. I wasn't giving up by any means, but I had to approach the question in a different way.

I saw her shoulders relax a fraction of an inch. Reaching over, I gave her a hug. She quickly hugged me back and then let go.

Mom averted her gaze as she spoke. “I think it’s time for you to go, Hazel. It’s been a long night and I have a busy day tomorrow.” She then brushed past me, heading toward the kitchen.

“Bye, Mom," I softly said to her retreating back. I went back into the living room to grab my stuff and head home.

I don’t know how I made it home. One moment I was in my Mom’s driveway and the next I was parked in front of my apartment building. I trudged up the sidewalk and into the building. My apartment was on the fifth floor. Once in the foyer, I noticed that the elevator was broken again, so I began the arduous climb to my apartment.

While walking I thought about what happened at Mom’s house. What was she keeping from me and why? Based on her reaction, it had to be something horrible. I started imagining dozens of scenarios about the photo, each one more terrible than the next. I was so lost in thought that I walked past my apartment door. I backtracked and fumbled for my key. Opening the door I stepped into my tiny apartment, tossed my keys on the counter, and headed to my living room. Landing on my couch, I closed my eyes and tried to relax. Maybe if I cleared my mind, something about that vacation and the photo would come back to me…

I was standing in front of a large rock formation. The sky was blue and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I could hear a voice just behind the rocks, but when I looked there was no one there. Walking back around the rock, I notice someone in the distance waving at me. I waved back furiously. I blinked and they disappeared. Feeling a tap on my shoulder, I turned around and saw the person who was waving at me…it was my sister. She looked just like she did before she got sick. I reached to hug her, but she stopped me, holding out her hand. She was holding our old family camera. I took it from her and stared at it quizzically. 

“You took the photo, Hazel. You may not remember, but you did.” My sister’s voice sounded far away, distant and haunting.

“But where was it taken?” I asked pleadingly. “I don’t remember any of it; the vacation or the photo.”

“The answer lies with Mom, you have to get her to talk. She can explain everything.” Her voice was fading.

“I’ve tried, she won’t.” I reached out to grab onto my sister, but my hand went right through her arm. She was leaving me once more and I still didn’t have any answers.

“Mom is the key.” Those were the last words my sister spoke before disappearing completely. That’s when I woke up

I spent most of the next day in a haze. I’m not sure how I made it to work. I know my coworkers could sense something was wrong, but they kept their distance. On the way home, I nearly ran a stop sign. I just managed to stop in time, but that didn’t stop me from being on the receiving end of an offensive gesture.

          I meant to go home, but somehow I found myself back at Mom's house. There was a familiar pickup truck in the driveway, in need of repairs that I knew the owner could afford, but didn't care to fix. 

          Why was my brother here? Had Mom called him to discuss what happened? Or was he in cahoots with Mom to keep the secret of the photo from me? I walked up the worn porch steps and was about to knock on the front door, when it opened…

           There stood Jasper. While the rest of us kept aging, he stopped somewhere in his thirties. I opened my mouth to speak, but he cut me off.

          “Living room, now,” he said sternly. 

I glared at him and stomped into the living room. There was Mom, sitting once again in her favorite chair. She wouldn't even look at me now. I took the same spot as before and waited for my brother to join us.

       “I'm glad you came tonight, Hazel,” my brother began. “Mom and I have something to discuss with you.”

       “It better be about the photo I found. How can I not remember taking it?.” I shot back hotly. I was through with all the pretense and hem-hawing around.

“Hazel!I understand that you are upset, but you do not speak to your brother that way.” My mother spoke as she gripped the arms of her chair. It was as though she was expecting the chair to save her from the onslaught ahead.

“There have been secrets kept from me by my own family, so I will talk anyway I WANT!” My voice reverberated throughout the house. 

“We had no choice!” My mother cried out, springing from her chair. “It was in your best interest to never find that photo."     

For a few moments no one said a word. I could hear the grandfather clock ticking away in the hall. Finally, I managed to choke out the words, “my best interest would be for my family to not keep SECRETS FROM ME!!!”      

“Not long after this photo was taken, you died.” My mom spoke these words so softly that I wasn't sure I heard her correctly.

“What do you mean I died? How can I be dead if I'm standing right here!?” I exclaimed.

“Listen to her, Hazel, Mom's telling you the truth,” Jasper said as he walked over to stand beside her. He placed his hand on Mom’s shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze.

            Mom walked over and  sat down beside me on the couch. Before she began to speak she took my hand and squeezed it gently. In a still soft voice she began…

“In December, 1999 I managed to get a few days off from work so I piled us all in the car for a surprise vacation. As a family we decided to head out West and see among other things the Grand Canyon. You were your usual moody self and, as hard as we tried, no one could put you in a good mood. We stopped by this neat rock formation in the desert and decided to take a picture in front of it. You, of course, refused to be in the picture, but begrudgingly decided to take it. 

Just after you snapped the picture, you tripped and hit your head on a rock. There was quite a bit of blood and you were in and out of consciousness. I drove like a speed demon to the nearest hospital we could find. By the time we made it you had stopped breathing. You were dead for about a minute before they were able to bring you back, but you still weren’t really with us. It took two weeks before you regained consciousness, but it was another month before you were able to remember things. By that time, we were home and decided that it was in your best interest to not bring up what happened to you. It seems your injury blocked out that entire month. Your sister was the worst one about keeping the secret. I caught her multiple times asking you if you saw a bright light after your accident. It played up her overactive imagination to keep you safe.” 

“How could you not tell me this! This is a part of my life and I’m just now finding out about it?” My family’s betrayal rolled over me like a summer thunderstorm. The pain of their words pounding into my brain like rain.

My Mom then took both of my hands in hers. She looked me in the eyes and said, “We have told you this before many, many times. It happens each time you find the photo. I had forgotten that I had put the photo in the box. I should have thrown it away years ago, but I couldn’t part with it.”

 I had forgotten an entire month of my life. I had forgotten about finding this same photo multiple times. What else had I forgotten? How much of my life was missing? How soon until the photo was forgotten again? 

April 05, 2024 16:11

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Martha Kowalski
19:28 Apr 07, 2024

Ah so this is what Jasper did before he became a storm chaser :) - thanks for liking my story!


Bethany Walters
22:25 Apr 07, 2024

Jasper's a secret keeper, so you have to watch out for him. :)


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