[CW: child death]
Pelita sits down cross-legged on the attic floor, the shoebox balanced on her lap. She’d noticed it when they were clearing room for her brother’s old cot, and her mother had said she could go back up and look through it after lunch if she wanted to – so of course she’d bolted her food, skipped clearing up (which she knew she’d end up being told off for) and headed back up as fast as possible.
She brushes the lid of the box with her hand, dislodging a cloud of dust and exposing block capitals laboriously inked in marker pen: ‘PELITA: ASYLUM’ To anyone else, the connection would be inexplicable (and possible worrying), but to Pelita it’s as clear as day – or as clear as the dust-motes shining in the light from the window. The asylum is, after all, where she was born and where she grew up, and where she lived until she was about eight or so. She smiles at the memories, and eases the box open.
It’s full to the brim with old photographs. She’d never thought they’d kept any of the photos people had taken while they were there, but here they all are, from almost-professional looking portraits to blurry and out-of-focus shots of someone’s thumb. She takes a handful at random, spreading them out on the floor.
The first one shows her parents, both looking younger, smiling at the camera. Cionne’s belly is rounded, and she leans a little on Malben’s shoulder. He stands tall, arm around his wife, proud and happy – and the air of the picture is only spoiled a little by his bloodstained apron and the scalpel tucked absent-mindedly behind his ear. Behind them, the asylum looms, but even its presence can’t take away the smiles on their faces.
The second one is much later – in it, a dark-skinned redheaded girl sitting on a mortuary slab, swinging her legs, laughing at whoever’s behind the camera. She looks oddly out of place in her surroundings, but the dark figure standing just to the left of the shot looks more out of place still.
Pelita looks closer.
The figure seems to be made up entirely of darkness – almost like a three-dimensional shadow.
She smiles. She remembers those figures, and, she realises, she remembers the day that picture was taken. It had been Felix she was laughing at – that explains the blurriness of the image, as the catboy had never figured out how to take a proper photo – and she’d been trying to explain to him who the shadow-man in the corner was. As far as she remembers, she didn’t get very far with that.
The next photo is earlier – the girl is younger, perched on her mother’s lap as she leans out across the tabletop, reaching for the newspaper the man sitting across from her is holding. He’s smiling, showing teeth that are altogether a little too sharp for comfort. The man leaning on the wall behind him scowls, cigarette jammed in the corner of his mouth, cut-throat razor open in one hand.
Pelita smiles at the photo, but the smile is tinged with sadness. She remembers those two men very well – Archer, the man holding the newspaper, had been almost an uncle to her, and his partner…he’d scared her, but she’d also felt sorry for him, when she found out who one of her shadow-men was. And she remembers seeing their corpses lying together after the battle that had almost destroyed the army entirely – they’d been holding hands, and she’d wondered at the time whether someone had placed them like that, or whether one had reached for the other, right at the end.
Their ashes are buried behind the asylum, and she still goes there sometimes. The last time she took some wine with her, and a book, and some cigarettes – the wine was to pour on the graves, as she’d heard Archer tell her mother that that was what was done in their world, but the book and the cigarettes were her own idea and had very nearly got her into a great deal of trouble.
She pushes that photograph away, exposing a smaller one which was hidden underneath it. It’s face-down, and the first thing she notices is her father’s scrawled and illegible handwriting across one corner. She picks the photo up, holding it close to her face as she puzzles out the inscription, working through the letters out loud.
“Pe..Pelita….ang- no, that can’t be right- oh, aged! Aged! Pelita, aged…” She frowns at the number, then turns the picture sideways. She can’t quite tell if it’s a 5 or a 6 (though it could possibly be a 3) and so leaves that for the moment, turning her attention to the smaller writing underneath. This is, if possible, even more illegible, and it takes her several minutes of peering and guessing and resisting the temptation to just look at the photo before she makes out the words ‘with butterfly’ in brackets under her name and age. This intrigues her, and she finally turns the photograph over.
The picture is another one of Felix’s, judging by the out-of-focus finger blotting out the top right-hand corner of the image. It shows Malben sitting on the floor in one of the corridors, grinning. In his lap sits the same dark-skinned girl, looking intently at something held in her cupped hands. From between her fingers, a flicker of colour can be seen – a butterfly’s wing.
She is about to put the picture down again when a familiar tingling feeling shoots up the side of her jaw, grounding itself behind her eyes. Almost instinctively she tightens her grip on the picture and looks around, searching for any sign of a shadow-man or something similar.
Confused, she turns her attention back to the photo, wondering if something in it had provoked that reaction. At first glance, it seems nothing has changed. Then, as she watches, a second image appears, superimposed on top of the original picture.
The new image shows the same two people as the original one, but the positioning is different. Malben is kneeling, head bent, eyes closed and – she looks closer – tears on his face, mixing with the dust and blood he seems to be covered with. He’s cradling something in his arms. She looks closer still, then recoils with a stifled yell as she realises she is staring into the eyes of her five-year-old self.
Her dead five-year-old self.
She can’t stop staring at the photograph.
As she looks, she begins to notice details. The blood soaking not-Pelita’s shirt and matted in her hair. The glimpse of a collapsed wall. And, almost out of shot, another body, curled as if trying to protect something or someone. Another redheaded, dark-skinned body.
And a butterfly, caught as a brightly-coloured blur in the top right-hand corner of the photograph.
She still can’t stop staring at the photograph.
The image begins to fade, and she almost wishes it wouldn’t – she needs to know how this happened, when it happened, why it happened.
She brings it closer to her face, looking for any clues.
The second image fades entirely, replaced by the original. Her father’s face, unmarked by blood or tears or dust, smiles out at her. Her self from twelve years ago, unbloodied and living, focuses her attention on the captured butterfly.
Pelita shoves the picture into the pocket of her jeans and stands up quickly, knocking the shoebox over. Photographs cascade out over her shoes, over the wooden floorboards, one over another, faces from years ago smiling or scowling or laughing out of them at her, and the tingling behind her eyes is getting worse, and she knows, she just knows that that picture isn’t the only one which has echoes of that other future in it, and she also knows that that is a future she doesn’t want to see.
She almost throws herself through the loft-hatch in her haste, scrambling down the ladder and falling into Malben’s arms as he limps round the corner of the corridor.
He staggers backwards a little under the weight of her, but catches himself on the wall, one arm still round her. “What’s the hurry?”
She doesn’t reply – just hugs him tight to reassure herself he’s here and she’s here and they’re both flesh and blood and nothing has changed.
He, surprised, hugs her back, and she buries her face in his shoulder and breathes in deeply, taking in the warm familiar living smell of him.
“Sweetheart, what’s wrong?”
“I’m…I..” She gives up on trying to explain. “Nothing’s wrong, Hade.”
He smiles a little, and hugs her tighter. “Something must be. You haven’t called me that since you were nine.”
“Ten,” she corrects him, and smiles as well, the image already fading for the moment.
And so she doesn’t notice when the photograph slips from her pocket as they walk down the stairs.
Copyright © 2018 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.