A flash fiction response to a challenge issued by Chuck Wendig at terribleminds.com.
The assignment was to write flash fiction, a story of less than 1000 words, based on a photo. Go see it now. Thank you. Stare at it long enough and… yeah, it’s like a bad flashback to the 70’s. This one was based on an idea I had last week after watching True Blood.
Ian called again.
“Did you get it?”
“No,” I said. “Couldn’t you just email it like everyone else in the free world does? Post it to Facebook, tweet it, stumble all over it, dang, whatever the kids are doing these days?”
“This picture you’ll want to hold in your hands.”
“Ian! Why’s this so important?”
There was silence. I knew he wanted to tell me. “Sorry, Jon. I wish I could have delivered it myself. Damn.”
When he called a week ago to mention he was sending me something, I had no reason to think it was anything earth-shattering. It was about the family reunion, right? I let it go at that. Then again, the dog was barking, the dishwasher half-loaded, and one of kidlettes spun in circles until she grew dizzy and dropped to the floor where she threatened to vomit. And I was up to my eyeballs in the types of nuisances that occurred only when we left town: the escape artist dog, a wobbly mailbox, a school meeting rescheduled to the same night as soccer and guitar lessons. In a nut-shell, life.
I was glad we went though. It’d been too long. Ian and I grew up together, cousins and best friends all through school. A week after graduation, we joined the Air Force. Eventually Uncle Sam did what no one else dared to do; station us in different corners of the earth. That’s when we took to the Internet. It cost some dough to get set up, but it beat the hell out of waiting for the APO mail to arrive. When we left the service, we wound up living a couple hours away. It was a real good moment to throw an arm around Ian when he arrived at the family reunion.
“Don’t sweat it. I’ll call you when it comes.”
I finished loading the dishwasher and implored my daughter to find something more meaningful to do, like tease her brother. Then my wife swept by. She stood in front of the trash in a sorting stance.
“The mail. I forgot to pick it up when we got home yesterday.”
She was methodical. Glance, garbage. Glance, garbage. Tear it open, peer inside, garbage. Bill pile. Garbage. Wordlessly, she handed me a letter. One of those frigging air mail envelopes identical to the ones Ian sent me twenty years ago. Christ, did Ian throw anything out besides his wife?
There was a single photograph inside.
I laughed. It was a picture from the family reunion. We were setting up to play Shadow Charades, that ridiculous game my parents love. We picked up the lawn chairs and drinks, moving them near the siding of the house. Only this year, Auntie May had a bit too much to drink. Well, that’s not true. She always had too much to drink. But this year she dragged Uncle Tim’s welder’s torch out of the garden shed instead of the battery operated floodlights. Ian must have snapped the shot with his cell phone mere seconds before my mother yelled, “May! Turn that thing off before you kill someone!” and the family scattered.
I called Ian back.
“You got the photo?” He asked.
“Yeah, this is hilarious! I can’t believe you caught this on film!”
“I forgot about the pictures from the family reunion. I went to pull the ones I took yesterday off the phone and saw them there.”
“Well, you were pretty busy putting out the grass fire.” I added.
“Thank God for that kiddie pool. You didn’t see it, did you?”
“See what?” He had lost me.
“Where are you in that picture?”
“I was standing behind everybody.” I lifted the photo and scrutinized it. There I was, on the far right, keeping my distance from crazy Aunt May. Then I saw the second face. “Oh, no.” I backed against the kitchen counter, suddenly tired.
“Jon? I’m real sorry,” Ian said. “I love you, man.”
I ended the call and set the phone on the counter.
I stumbled past my wife. Outside, the smell of Fall surrounded me. I slumped into a lawn chair. Leaves from the maple tree slipped free and spiraled down until they came to rest in the grass. They’d broken free.
Jenny. My sister was coming for me. After all this time, she kept her promise. I’d waited years but I thought I had more. Ian had my instructions. Long ago, we’d made the same promise to each other. Ian was the best man I knew. And bless Jenny for not taking me that night. An extra week with my family free from all the usual daily craziness. How was that for a bit of closure?
I knew what I had to do. There was dignity in walking away willing.
That was why we made the Promise. I’ll come back for you. I’ll take care of your family. I’ll conclude your business. What other way would The Collection work? I set the photo down on the side table.
Jenny stood on the porch when I walked out the front door. Twelve years after her death, she was as beautiful as I remembered. I turned around and kissed my wife and children one last time. It was time to go.