By Elahe Zare
It seems so innocuous and yet the box unnerves him. A deep, aching kind of uncertainty at the center of his being; his gut twists and turns like a ship at sea. Just a plain brown box.
Brown boxes, he thinks, are like brown bags. They're the perfect hiding place. Everyone knows they could have anything inside of them, anything at all, but the mundanity of their outer appearance trumps any mystery or appeal other containers might have.
Much like serial killers in their tan khakis and their over sized beige windbreakers.
The woman in the blue dress sitting beside him takes his hand. She doesn't say anything. He has no words for her either. He thinks they must be caught somewhere, perhaps behind his teeth, inside his throat.
He lifts the lid.
A black photo album is inside of it, at the very top, unmarked apart from some delicate golden filigree that catches the light. It's large. Thick.
The silence is unpleasant. He can't decide if the ringing in his ears is real or imaginary. Psychosomatic. They've used that word already today. He doesn't dare ask his companion if she hears it, too.
It feels heavy in his hands, and yet far lighter than it should. It should tear at his muscles to lift it. It should have its own gravitational field. Instead, it settles on his lap, a plain photo album, no heavier than its pages.
He opens it to a crescendo of crinkling plastic. The first page, he sees photos in black and white and sepia. Memories of memories of memories.
A little boy, staring directly at the camera, with severe and heavy features. He looks so serious, like a little adult in his suit. Then a girl, long, curly hair, and a wild, mischievous expression. Her dress is stained and patched and muddy.
There they are again, in groups and separately. Getting older. Not too many photos, about a handful, leaping through time in bounds. Bundles of years disappearing carelessly between one photograph to the next.
Finally they are around his age, these two. Perhaps younger. In color, but dim like only a memory of color and not the truth of it.
A wedding dress in brilliant white, a suit stark black. An elegant pair. It is difficult to read their expressions as they stand, posed together atop a great staircase. Her eyes are a deep blue, he can see now. The man's, dark and solemn as his suit.
Now there's a baby, a boy underneath that swaddling blanket. He grows to a toddler with a shock of curly hair and cake on his face. He's riding a bike, he's smiling, gap-toothed, and so, so gently cradling a new little baby, a girl this time. A sister.
He grows in small moments, they both do. The casual, candid seconds snapped up and saved like fossils for the eyes of the future.
His hair is wild like his mother's, his eyes dark like his father's. He is awkward in his prom photo, too tall and thin, looming. His sister is angry in hers, arms crossed and glaring.
The shadows in the pictures make his heart constrict. They seem sinister somehow. The colors seem wrong, too vivid, not vivid enough. He feels ill, he can't look at anymore. He wants to close it, throw it back in the box. Undo what he has done, forget his trespass into the past.
Then he sees her. The woman in the blue dress. She is looking away from the camera, her red hair falling over her shoulder. She has a startled expression on her face, as though she knew he was about to stumble across this photo, as if she could predict this interloper from the future.
The past can't run from the future, any more than the future can run from the past, he thinks.
He touches this picture and doesn't know why. Looks up at her, the real her, he'd thought, sitting just beside him. This picture is the only one that doesn't feel wrong to him.
She's crying, in the chair beside his bed. He is uncomfortable, and wants to give her privacy. He realizes perhaps the real her is the one immortalized in these images. Perhaps the real her no longer exists.
She looked happy, then, when she existed. Her hair goes from long to short to long again. Every change suits her. The boy has since grown into a man. When they are together in the frame, they look as if they share a secret that no one else in the world will ever know.
They get married. Her dress is simple, his suit is rumpled. For the first time, they are both blushing as if shy of each other, or perhaps of the extravagance of the event. His sister holds a bouquet of bright yellow tulips, and her mouth is open as if she were speaking. His parents, older now, dancing- they still hold each other as if it was their wedding day.
He stops, he thinks he can't look anymore. He doesn't want to look at her. Doesn't want to see her tears, not now that he knows how she can smile.
Photographs are just the remnants of moments in time that no longer exist, he thinks. Just the ghosts of images that mock what was once alive.
She sees his distress, maybe, or is too far gone in her own, and tries to take the album from him. He resists. He hasn't finished yet.
What destruction looks like is this: a little baby, flushed and brand new, curled up in her mother's arms. A girl, a daughter.
Eventually, she has red hair, like her mother, and her father's serious gaze, the same gaze as the little boy in the black and white beginning.
A feverish turning of pages and the moments become almost like a film- she takes her first steps and runs along with him, unaware that she won't ever catch up.
And now here is the end and the point to this long journey through history: she of the dark eyes and the messy red hair, the culmination of all who came before, is the last picture in the book.
She is climbing on her father's leg, pulling at him, as he looks down at her with exasperation and adoration combined, a present held up in his hand. It is wrapped in white and gold wrapping paper. She has a white dress on, is missing one of her shoes, her hair is a smudge of red.
Her face is blurred from the movement, from the vibrant energy contained within her.
He stares at this picture longer than he thinks. He stares until his eyes water from the staring.
There's nothing beyond her.
The woman in the blue dress closes the album. She is crying, but her tears fall as though they've forgotten how not to.
“Do you remember anything?” she asks.
He remembers only this white room, what had elapsed in it before this photo album was unleashed on him. He remembers waking up. He remembers the explanations. A wreck, an accident, on the highway. He had survived, the only one of ten others involved. No one had told him about this little girl, this amalgamation of history, this abrupt, final picture in the album of his life.
A dull ache echoes through him, the hollow tunnels of his body. Emptiness too suffocating to tolerate.
“No,” he says, and his wife squeezes his hand.
Elahe Zare is a traveler and writer, with a love of words and languages. She has lived in such diverse places as Turkey and Norway, but is currently based in Seattle, WA, with her partner and infant son. She has both too much time on her hands, and too little.