My eyes are in a ferverous affair with the clock, and my focus is none the wiser. The police dispatcher is pleading for me to humor her inquiries, if for no reason other than to keep my consciousness afloat. It is so late, and today has been so challenging. Nevertheless, I’ll gratify her with my story, because I am really in no mood to tell it again later.
Mariam Cliffington happened into our photo center again today. These visits are becoming relentless, as are the innumerable poorly Photoshopped images on her SanDisk flash drive. Every day it’s the same process. She perches at our photo Kiosk, orders small batches of 5×7 and 4×6 photos, and crones over the photo printer as it squeals its mechanical protests. The unfortunate photo specialist on duty is then scolded by dear old Mariam, as “the color in my son’s face is coming out too pale” and “my granddaughter’s dress looks much too washed out” becomes as recitable as the Lord’s Prayer. The project is then gifted to me, as I am the only one who receives her limited mercy. This is due in part because I am the only one in the store qualified as a professional photo editor.
I also look just like her son.
At least that’s what she tells me every time she swoons over the photos I correct. I personally never saw the extreme resemblance. We have similar, Hollywood-esque hairstyles, dark stubble, light eyes, and a fair complexion, but that is where the similarities end. Well, that is my general assumption. Truthfully, I have never met him. According to Mariam, they don’t get along so well these days. Reportedly, her son has become what she calls a “changed person” after he split with his wife. That always seemed odd to me, because nearly every day I am draining the red out of a new family photo that she zealously adds in her novice Photoshop sessions. It seems the family often stays in touch.
Today, we discussed more personal topics, such as my college degree and her family get togethers. She told me she was celebrating her granddaughter Gracie’s fifth birthday today, and was putting together a photo album and baked goodies to send her. Today’s photos were of the girl from her previous birthday. She had straw blonde hair, her father’s bright blue eyes, rosy red cheeks, and a devilish grin that strongly reminded me of the girl from the movie Problem Child 2. When the topic turned to me being a graduate in multimedia design, she immediately began to give me the shakedown on my talents as a web developer.
She wanted me to build her a forum-based website just for her family. She wasn’t fond of the public limelight social media granted, but wanted regular updates from her son, granddaughter, their prized show horses, and images from all the reunions they have over the years.
I’m not a fan of Mariam. She may treat me in a more humane manner than my colleagues, but she is always so bitter. She carries an air of importance about her that mismatches who she is, like a pug in a sweater made of silk. The last thing I want from a client is a beady pair of eyes reflected behind ancient, dark rimmed tortoiseshell glasses, critiquing my every line of code with ignorant words laced with the smell of stale coffee and menthol cigarettes. Her gray-black hair was often wild and tangled, as if she was fleeing her home every morning to develop photos which contained the cure for Cancer.
Despite her lack of self-management, she saw herself as an expert in managing the talents of others. I never inquired about the specifics of her family problems, but I assumed this attitude must cause the bulk of it. This sense of entitlement is something I don’t blend well with.
After endless barrages of questions about my rates, schedule, and ability to tutor her in Photoshop, I gave her my business card and told her to call me in a few weeks. Truthfully, I’m in my two week leave period and on my way to a better job, and this was a simple method to evade her until I would never have to see her again. She seemed content with my proposal and took my card. I told her to forward my congratulations to her granddaughter on her 5 year milestone.
As she shuffled out of our store, I looked again at the refuse pile of discolored prints. If her family is so dysfunctional, why does she bring in new pictures of her son and granddaughter every other day? Why, as a “spitting image” of the son she frequently quarrels with, am I so reasonably treated by her?
Those suspicions came to fruition a few hours later when a twenty-something couple dropped off a few rolls of 35mm film. They had matching black hair, the athletic builds of bicyclists, and eyes that reflected deep kindness but an even deeper sense of fatigue. The lab’s business was running slow today, so I was immediately able to process their order and begin development.
The development process is always the same. I feed just enough of the raw film through a machine to attach it to a leader card which is mechanically guided through the film processor. After it completes its voyage and the developed film is fed through, I place it on the scanner of our printing machine and check the frames digitally for color flaws and inconsistencies.
The pictures showed the young couple celebrating another birthday. A boisterous banner which read “HAPPY BIRTHDAY MITCH” hung above an electric blue neon mini bar. The couple was shown holding beer bottles and laughing heartily. The entire set was quite like the photos most young couples bring in. There was a sloppy drunken kiss here, someone air guitaring on a table there. I began to complacently press the PRINT button after every six frames.
Then I noticed a picture of Mariam’s son.
Even though I had never met him, I had seen that face often. It was a face that was branded into the back of my eyes like the bright red digits of a digital alarm clock in the first few moments of morning consciousness.
I was intrigued that these two may also be familiar with the eccentric woman who both frowned upon and adored her family. As I was packing up their photos and ringing up their orders, I decided to make conversation.
“So, you know Mariam Cliffington?” I asked casually.
I glanced upward, and the glance became a fixture. A paleness and shock had matched the exhaustion they both wore it their eyes.
“Are you okay? I recognized her son in your photos.”
The girl spoke, tears welling in her eyes.
“That’s our friend Mitch. Those photos were taken a few weeks ago. He passed last week. This order is for his funeral slideshow.”
Her boyfriend spoke next, clearly unsettled but retaining his composure, as he quickly recited what I am sure he has gotten used to explaining.
“He and his daughter were found dead in Mariam’s home last Sunday, poisoned. The police have been seeking her for questioning. Have you seen her recently?”
I was floored. I am rarely one to lose my cool, but I began tripping over my words like they were raised on a high wire.
“Y – Yes. I mean…she was just in here a few hours ago. She said she was celebrating Gracie’s fifth birthday. I – she is working on a new photo album. They were new photos!”
The girl spoke next.
“We need to call the police immediately. Gracie’s birthday was the Tuesday before they were found. They didn’t enjoy visits with Mariam, but she insisted on being with them to celebrate.”
Call them I did. I spent the rest of my shift plus two extra hours conversing with a police detective and the couple. He asked me to print out the information we had on Mariam and if we had any idea of her whereabouts. They inquired about the frequency of her visits, the types of purchases she makes from the rest of the store, her current appearance, and general abnormalities in her behavior. I gave them what they needed along with surveillance footage from the cameras we had hidden around the building. They gave me the direct line to their office and sent me off with my assurance that I would call them immediately if Mariam came into the shop again.
The drive home felt relatively nonexistent. The thoughts of what occurred seemed to dominate my sense of time while on the road. Had this lady who compared me to her own son been responsible for his death? For the death of his daughter? Would I see her before the police?
I arrived at my house in the same psychological state as when I left the store. I nearly broke my ankle while stumbling over a package that was placed in front of the entryway. I brought it inside into the light, and saw that the sender’s name was Mom. I wasn’t sure what the occasion was, but I assumed it was a late Thanksgiving care package. Regardless, it was good to receive mail from her – I wasn’t sure where her new apartment was. Now I had her address. 6312 Prospect Road.
Inside the package was a tin box of cookies and a neatly wrapped rectangular gift. I hadn’t gotten to eat lunch with all of the police activity, so I immediately started tanking through the cookies as if I had also skipped my last five meals. After my fourth cookie, I decided to wipe the crumbs from my hands and see what the mystery gift was. I unceremoniously ripped the red and gold metallic paper off of what appeared to be a small photo album bound in black vinyl. I opened it with giddy curiosity, and felt the blood empty from my face.
It was a timeline of photos of Mariam Cliffington’s family.
These weren’t the fun family get togethers I had recrafted at the photo lab. I hadn’t printed these at all.
Page one. Mitch and Gracie are propped against the arm of a tan leather sofa, daughter wrapped in father’s arms. Their eyes are sunken and rolled backwards, and their tongues are lolled out of their mouths in an unnatural brown color. There is dried spittle and yellow foam caught in Mitch’s black stubble, and a mixture of blood and vomit on the front of Gracie’s shirt. The blood vessels in their faces are a sickly blue, and their skin is pale and puffy. This photo is labeled “Tuesday, Happy Birthday Gracie!”
Page two. The bodies are placed in a maroon 2013 Toyota Rav4. They have been cleaned up and posed, Mitch in the front seat, Gracie in the center back seat. Their skin has continued to swell so their eyes are puffy slits. Their now-purple lips have been sewn shut, and side stitched into makeshift smiles. One of Mitch’s Arms is placed on the wheel, the other propped against the passenger seat in a pathetic wave. The label: “Wednesday, taking Gracie to school!”
Page three. The bodies are now dressed in swimsuits, and are posed around a kiddie pool. Mitch had to be propped up in an unknown a manner that is cleverly hidden from the frame. He is on his knees at the edge of the pool in blue and white Hawaiian shorts. Gracie is in the pool, positioned on her belly in a striped pink one piece bathing suit with a matching swim skirt. Their hands are duct taped together, and their skin has taken on a sickly yellow color. They are starting to bruise and darken in areas which they had evidently been placed for too long. The label: “Thursday, teaching Gracie to swim!”
Page four. Mitch is now dressed in a handsome ivory tuxedo which has a few off-color stains where his skin is starting to split open. He is at his kitchen table with a full glass of white wine and a lit dining candle in front of him. The sleeves on his arms reveal dark bruising where the tape was wrapped with his daughter’s arms the day before. Gracie is not in this picture, but Mariam is. She is grasping one of his rotting hands in one of her own, with a brimming glass of red wine in the other. She wears a motherly smile that sickeningly matches the sewn on smile her lifeless son now wears. The label: “Friday, dinner with the boy!”
Page five. Gracie is propped against the wall, the skin of her arms ripped off where the tape was two days prior. Her face is beginning to lose its humanity, but is now coated in makeup worthy of a Little Miss Sunshine pageant. Her straw blonde hair is curled and bouncy, and her artificial smile is beginning to tear along the stitching. Next to her is an assortment of porcelain dolls, each made up and dressed with care that is a bit too sophisticated for a five year old girl. To the far left of the frame, Mariam’s reflection can be seen in a full body mirror, pointing the camera at the twisted salon she constructed. The label: “Saturday, girls’ night out!”
Page six. There is finally a full frame of the house in which this sickening family montage was photographed. It is a modest, one story home on the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. The paint is a simple white, and it is beginning to flake from a simple picket fence that marked the perimeter. There are no other homes close by that are visible from the angle of the shot. In the left of the frame, the stables of the prized horses Mariam mentioned are visible in the background. The gates are wide open, and the horses are nowhere to be seen. Police cars, ambulances, and yellow crime scene tape blocks the rest of the view, except for the mailbox.
The address on the mailbox: 6312 Prospect Road.
The sides of the frame indicate motion blur and plastic paneling. Mariam photographed this from a moving vehicle, likely from far away. The label reads “Sunday, The family gets to see policemen in action on career day!”
On the final page, Mariam is standing in front of my house with the package I had just opened. The label: “Thursday, dropping off goodies for my favorite son!”
In that moment of realization, weakness took control of my body. Not just from the imagery I was subjected to, but from a sickening feeling that burned in my stomach and intestines. Words from earlier were ripping through my skull.
“You look just like my son.”
“He and his daughter were found dead in Mariam’s home last Friday, poisoned.”
I forced myself to scan the backgrounds of those horrible pictures. On the first page, in Gracie’s lap, was the cookie tin I had just eaten from.
This package was not from my mother. It was from a crazed mother who thought I was her son, guided to my home from the business card I gave her.
Now here we are. I don’t think I have much time left. I am starting to lose focus. My eyes are in a ferverous affair with the clock, and my focus is none the wiser. Maybe they’ll get married and elope. I’ll invite this dispatcher to the wedding if I make it through this. I vaguely realize that doesn’t make sense, but I don’t mind. I am so tired, and now I can’t stop coughing. I think I hear sirens in the distance, but I am not sure if the ambulance has a cure for vomiting blood.
Someone is coming up the stairs.
I have to go now.
Mariam is here, and she wants to give Gracie swimming lessons.