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art by Seth Alan Bareiss


Michael has lived in Ohio his entire life but fiction has let him travel from Los Angeles to China to outer space. He has enjoyed writing since his youth and is particularly interested in science fiction, fantasy, and mystery. Among his writing idols are Isaac Asimov, Guy Gavriel Kay, S. J. Rozan, W. P. Kinsella, Roald Dahl, and Lawrence Block. His bibliography and blog are available at michaelhaynes.info and he is an avid Tweeter (@mohio73).

Kelly signs for possession of the fireproof box and wonders what her mother had felt the need to protect. No jewelry, that all would have been hocked years ago--cigarette money. Back when they still talked, Kelly always told her mom the cigarettes would kill her.
She hadn't imagined it happening so suddenly.
She is tired from the overnight drive and stares at the only legacy left to her. Of course there's no key. It seems a perfect coda to her mother's life, until the helpful officer tells her how easy it is to pop the lock.
She thanks him and leaves the station, carrying what had been transformed from a little mystery into something mundane. Just another problem with a half-assed solution.
In her motel room she fiddles with the box until it springs open. Her stomach clenches when she sees the scrapbook, the only thing in the box. She wishes the damned thing had burned up, too.
One finger traces the spiral wire binding the book together. There are dogs on the cover. Happy, frolicking dogs completely at odds with the memories she associates with the scrapbook.
Kelly remembers that Christmas. She'd been fifteen and saved up money that year by recycling cans so she could buy her mother a new purse. When her mother opened the package she didn't look excited, like Kelly had hoped. She looked stunned. Kelly asked if she liked it, and her mother said it was beautiful. But the words were flat. She must have known what was coming.
Kelly unwrapped her own present, easing open the green paper with silver snowflakes, knowing it was the only gift she would be opening that year.
What she had revealed was this cheap dollar store scrapbook.
The memories of the rest of that Christmas embarrass her. She'd torn into her mother like only a teenager can, thrown the scrapbook on the ground and stormed out of the house. When she came home, almost at midnight, the scrapbook was gone. Her mother was dead asleep on the couch. An empty beer and a full ashtray sat on the end table.
They never discussed that Christmas. Kelly would have bet the scrapbook was moldering in a landfill, but now, here it sits on the wobbly table of a cheap motel room. And she can't find the courage to open the cover.
Tomorrow she'll be making funeral arrangements, and in a few days, she'll leave this town for good. There's no one here she cares about. There hasn't been for years. And now there's no one here that she has any responsibility towards, either.
She looks at the dogs on the cover. Puppies, really, chasing a ball frozen in time. She reaches out, and whips the cover open.
The first page has a cast list from a school play, one of the few her mother ever made it to. She turns to the next page. A white participation ribbon from the third-grade spelling bee. Her mom hadn't made it to that.
She'd promised to be there, to not miss seeing Kelly up on the little stage at the elementary school. Kelly remembers the lights and looking out into the gymnasium for her mother in one of the folding metal chairs. She remembers getting more and more anxious when she couldn't find her mother who'd promised--promised--to be there.
They'd called her name.
"Kelly," Mrs. Jackson said, "your word is 'piece.' I'll use it in a sentence. 'I would like a piece of pie.' 'Piece.'"
Sixty seconds later she walked off the stage. Bobby, who misspelled 'target' moments before, leaned over and said, "You dummy, that was 'peace' like 'peace on Earth.'"
Kelly goes to the sink and gets some water. She washes her face, too, and wonders what other wonderful memories this scrapbook will bring back.
Back by the table, she turns to the next page. Her senior prom photo faces her. The dark blue dress that never fit quite right and the big hair everyone had back then. She thinks she looks hideous but Will looks good. Will always looked good. They hadn't stayed together once she left for college. That first Thanksgiving, when she was home on break, they had each wanted to tell the other it wasn't working. They'd cried, and laughed, and hugged. She came home for his wedding two years later, the only time she'd ever happily returned.
Kelly reaches out and touches the photograph. Her vision blurs and she's facing herself in that dress, big as life. She's in the living room of her mother's house, the one that burned down, and she's watching herself stand patiently as her own hands--but they can't be her hands, the fingers are too small and the skin too rough--put pins in the dress for adjustments.
"It's going to look gorgeous," she says. But it's not her voice. It's her mother's voice. And her thoughts now aren't her own, either. She remembers going to the pawnshop, trading in a lawn mower and...
Kelly jerks away from the table. Her heart is racing and she has to look around the room to be sure of where she is, of who she is.
She wonders if she momentarily fell asleep. Fingers trembling, she touches the photograph again. Instantly she's back with the prom dress, the pins, and the lawn mower. Letting go, the motel room comes back into focus.
She flips back to the previous page and looks again at that ribbon. She touches the page, just the paper. Nothing happens. She slides her fingers up to the edge of the ribbon...
The kitchen of the pizza parlor is blazing hot.
"Frank, I told you I've got to go. I promised Kel."
"And I told you that if you don't finish getting those pizzas ready for this order then you can go find another damn job." Her boss walks away without another word. She thinks about telling him where he can put his pizzas but it's an empty thought. Already her hands are spreading sauce and sprinkling cheese. What's one more promise broken, if it lets you keep putting food on the table?
Kelly can't stop now. She goes to the first page, the cast list from a middle-school play, watered down Romeo and Juliet. She touches it and is relieved to be happy. The children take their bows. She applauds and gives a little whoop when Kelly takes her turn at the front of the stage. The mother in the next chair grins and they exchange a little high-five. Both their children made it through the play.
Kelly keeps turning the pages and touching the mementos. They're all jumbled up in time, no rhyme or reason. A letter from Kelly's university, saying she is on the Dean's List brings back pride mixed with a sense of loss. A handmade birthday card, crayon on construction paper says, "Happy Birthday, Mommey!" It comes with pure happiness and breakfast in bed, burnt toast and orange juice.
There's a program from a high school band concert, the one where she had a solo. Kelly remembers that concert, how perfect playing that night had felt. Her mother had been there, had even taken her out for soft-serve afterwards.
Kelly reaches for the program, ready to relive that moment, even from another's eyes.
But she's not watching a concert; she's back in the living room of the house. High school Kelly plays the same few notes on her flute, over and over, practicing for that solo. Wind gusts through the house and blows her music to the floor. She watches herself bend to pick it up. Her eyes flick across the room and catch Lee--son of a bitch--leering at her daughter's ass.
She orders Kelly to go practice upstairs, says she has a headache and needs a break from the noise. Kelly rolls her eyes but goes anyway, stomping up the steps. The music starts again soon, a backdrop to the argument that rages. Lee hits her in the face. God, it hurts. He says something on his way out the door, but it's lost to the ringing in her ears. She wonders how she'll pay the mortgage without him.
The memory ends and Kelly, today Kelly, is still touching the program. She remembers the bruise on her mother's face. It was there when they went to the Dair-E-Cream after the concert. What had her mother said about the bruise? She tries, but can't recall.
Kelly puts her face in her hands. It's all too much, but she has to know what else is in the book. Making sure to touch only the corners of the pages she works her way towards the back. So many memories--her own memories--come back just looking at them. There are some things she's tempted to touch, but the memory of Lee's punch is fresh and there's no guarantee what any of these artifacts will reveal.
Kelly gets to the last page of the book and, oh God, green holiday paper with silver snowflakes. A small piece, a literal scrap, is taped into the book. She stares at it, mesmerized, feeling as if she's falling into the snow on the paper.
She can't touch it. She can't.
Kelly closes the book carefully. Someday she'll have to touch that scrap of paper. Someday she'll go back to that Christmas. Not today.
She touches the cover again. And she does the one thing she didn't expect to do on this trip. She cries.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, October 4th, 2012

Author Comments

This story literally kept me up at night.

I'd been working with the core idea for months and had an abandoned partial draft of the story told in a completely different style and with a larger cast of characters. Late one night I thought of the approach I ended up taking for the story. I wrote about half of the first draft and tried to go to bed, thinking that I would write the rest in the morning.

The darn thing wouldn't let me sleep. I kept thinking about it, typing up a quick email to myself on my phone about some detail I wanted in the second half of the story, and so on. Finally, at about 3 in the morning I gave up, got back on the computer and wrote the rest of the story. As soon as I got to The End, I was able to get a good (though short) night's sleep.

- Michael Haynes
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