A man in overalls with his shirtsleeves rolled up above his biceps stomped across the attic floor of his farmhouse and snatched up an open cardboard box.
As he whisked around to leave, a black and white 3 x 5 photograph jumped from the box and drifted onto the wooden floor. For the next forty-two years it lay hidden amid the dark and the dust and endured season after season of frigid winter drafts and stifling summer heat.
The monotony of buzzing flies and scurrying spiders was broken once a year when a woman, who grayed and slowed with each appearance, would step inside the attic and weep as she fingered the pink and yellow satin ribbons that draped over a nail on the wall.
But this year, the old woman did not return.
Instead when the attic door creaked opened, a middle-aged man in freshly pressed khaki pants tugged a ceiling chain to turn on the naked light bulb.
A woman followed him inside and wrinkled her nose. “Ugh, it’s so musty in here.”
“I’ll make it quick, Cindy,” he said. “All I want is that box over there that has Grandpa’s Army medals and stuff. The rest can go to the thrift store and the dumpster.”
Cindy picked up a black felt hat with a peacock feather stuck in its band and laughed. “I can’t imagine why you’re not interested in saving your grandma’s old clothes.” She tossed it aside when she spied pink and yellow satin ribbons hanging from the wall. “Oh, wouldn’t these make pretty bows for a little girl’s hair?”
Bill weaved his way through stacks of books, plastic bags, wooden crates, and suitcases to an olive green metal box that sat upon a rusted TV tray. When he bent to lift it, he noticed a black and white photograph lying on the floor next to his shoe. He picked it up, wiped the dust with his finger, and stared at the girl looking back at him.
The girl in the picture felt an immediate and electric connection. She recognized his spirit as part of her own and knew she was staring back at her son, an adult older than she.
“What did you find, Bill?” Cindy asked.
“Oh, it’s nothing,” he said, gazing at the photograph. “It’s just an old picture of some teenage girl in the sixties or seventies.”
“What? Let me see.” She plucked the snapshot from his hand. “I love the style back then, the headband, the striped mini-skirt…” She squinted and brought the picture closer. “Oh my gosh, I think she’s pregnant.”
The girl in the picture shouted, “Of course I’m pregnant! C’mon , lady, hand me back to my son!”
Cindy shook her head. “Look at the expression on that girl’s face. What righteous indignation. It’s as if she’s daring you to tell her to wear her skirt longer or to get home before her midnight curfew. God, wouldn’t you have hated to have been her parent?”
“Nobody loves the family truth-teller.”
“Is there anything written on the back of that picture?” Bill asked.
Cindy turned it over. “Alice, July 1968.”
Bill grabbed the photograph.
“Do you know her?”
“Oh God, surely not.” He frowned and bit his lip as he studied the picture.
Cindy pressed against him and peered over his shoulder. “What?”
“My mom’s name was Alice. But this girl looks so young—like sixteen or seventeen and not twenty which she would have been in 1968.”
“So you’ve never seen any pictures of your mother?”
“Grandma said they were destroyed by a fire in Grandpa’s shop.”
The eyes of the girl in the picture flickered with anger.“Yeah, it happened right after I called home with the news that I was pregnant and my boyfriend had left me to go backpacking in Europe. A mysterious little fire somehow destroyed all of my clothes and pictures, but left the rest of dear old Dad’s shop intact. I told Mom that story was a crock. You don’t believe it, do you?”
“Why did your mother run away and leave you with your grandparents?”
Bill sighed. “She didn’t want us, I guess.
“You don’t know, there may be another side to that story.”
The girl in the picture screamed, “I wanted my parents, but they were too ashamed for me to come home. And my boyfriend thought having a family would be a drag. I love my baby and I’d never—”
“Maybe I don’t want to know.” Bill tossed the photo on top of the TV tray. “Besides, that girl is probably no relation. She may be some neighbor-down-the-road’s long lost cousin.”
“What if I took the picture and did a little research?”
Bill shook his head and nudged Cindy toward the door. “Let’s go. I’ll tell Andy to toss the rest of this stuff.”
The light clicked off and the door closed.
The girl in the picture cried, “Hey, you need to hear my—no, our story!”
Thunder shook the house that night as coin-sized drops of rain thumped the roof. Footsteps echoed up the stairwell. The door rattled open. A click of the light bulb revealed Bill standing in a black slicker with water pooling at his feet. He scanned the room until he saw the photograph sitting atop the TV tray. His hands trembled as he picked it up by the edges and stared at the girl in the picture.
“I wish you could tell me why, Mom.”
A tear fell from his eyes to the girl’s face. Her expression softened, her chin lowered, her shoulders stooped. He slipped the photograph inside his coat and clicked off the light. DSS
Terry Cobb, 53, of Harris, Missouri, is a retired radiology supervisor, and has written for magazines and newspapers. She and her husband live on a farm where she gardens and takes photographs. See her blog, with some great photos, here.
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