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Where Serial Fiction Lives

The Paths We Take #1

Feb 13, 2018

LUKE

After the first time my life fell apart, I eventually started over, told myself that things would get better, and began to hope again. I moved on. I wasn’t looking for a second chance; I didn’t think I deserved one. In a small town people look at you differently. Sometimes the stares were filled with sympathy, like I was a wounded animal without hope of survival. Others blamed me, the hate in their eyes burning me down to the marrow in my bones. Maybe, after everything that had happened, that is why I prefer to be alone. I didn’t know it was possible for my life to be turned upside-down for a second time. Sometimes life gives you a cruel beating and then stands over you while you’re bleeding and asks, you ready for more?

It was Sunday and I found myself among the extensive collection of antique furniture, once-treasured trinkets, and obsolete electronics that choked the shop, leaving only a labyrinth of winding jagged paths through the five rooms of the Willow Mills. I worked my way through the rearmost room at the west end of the shop, wading through the five thousand square feet of memories belonging to strangers. I was alone, except for the faint footfalls that seemed to track a few paces behind in the next room.

Most Sundays the antique-hunter paradise was quiet until noon when the churches released their congregations back into the world. The first room on the east end of the shop had an old-fashioned diner; it was the kind of place where the cheeseburgers tasted so good that you forgot about your problems and thanked God you were alive.

I was three-quarters of the way through the room when I saw the gray outer shell of the Polaroid Impulse 600. The camera was protruding from a decaying cardboard box on top of an archaic Danish-style long dresser. The dust created a haze which made the box appear to sink into the wood.  

I lugged the box from the dresser to the floor and rummaged through the vintage VHS tapes, faded baseball cards, and photographs, until I found a small box of film at the bottom. The box was brittle, but the film inside looked to be in pristine condition.

Mr. Parrish worked the shop on Sundays, and probably every other day, but I had never asked if he was the actual owner of the Willow Mills. I preferred my solitary existence, and although I liked to entertain the idea of having a few friends in my life, Mr. Parrish was not one of them.

“I found a Polaroid camera in the back tucked away in the corner Mr. Parrish.  How much you want for it?”  

“Someone dropped that box by a few weeks ago Luke. I haven’t had time to organize it,” Mr. Parrish said as he scratched the back of his neck and looked around at the piles of boxes that littered the floor around him.

“How much for the camera and the film?” I asked again, hoping he would detect the tone of annoyance in my voice. I set the camera atop the glass showcase used as a makeshift checkout counter.  

“You can have it for forty dollars. I am sure it’s worth more, but for you, I will make an exception,” Mr. Parrish said. He picked up the camera, held it up to the dim yellow light, and spun it around a few times to examine it. “Have you seen your father recently?” he asked while he placed the camera and the package of film into a copy-paper box. The dormant layer of dust turned into a billowing cloud as he pushed the lid in place. 

I ignored his question and looked at the front door while I handed him two twenties, snatched the box from the counter, and started towards the exit. I could feel Mr. Parrish staring at me. His eyes were framed by a gaunt face hardened by years of hard work. What little hair he had left was combed neatly to the side, like a light dusting of white from a fresh snowfall. I worked my way to the door, weaving my way around a dozen more boxes filled with discarded toys, books, ceramic dishes, and a thousand other things that had been accumulating over the years.

“Until next week, Luke,” Mr. Parrish called out as I opened the front door. I looked back at his pinched face, matched his half grin, and then departed into the sharp Fall air.

**********

Hollinger Park was less than a half a mile from the Willow Mills. I left my truck in the gravel lot behind the shop and bustled down the sidewalk which curved sharply down the hill, the Willow Mills disappeared from my view. The town was quiet. The only sound was the crunching of dead leaves underneath my feet as I walked.

The ten acres of Hollinger Park paralleled the river that ran north to south. It was mostly filled with picnic tables, a quaint wooden playground for the kids, and a dirt walking path that twisted its way through the numerous white pine and black locust trees.

The only other people in the park when I arrived were a graceful young couple with two toddlers. The toddlers, two blonde boys who were probably three, laughed with jubilant smiles as they threw the tattered pieces of bread to the ducks and then proceeded to chase them. The ducks scattered in a mad panic back to the bank of the river to safety. The woman, an appreciably fit blonde dressed in black and pink patterned leggings and a pink hoodie, waved as she noticed me sit down at a picnic table. I lifted my hand slightly and smiled, just enough to acknowledge her without letting her know that I had noticed her already. Her life, I was sure, was very different than mine.

I took the camera from the box and gently set it on the picnic table. I pulled out a tissue that I had in my pocket and wiped the dust from the gray casing. The camera was equipped with a pop-up flash, the kind a detective in Eighties films used to document initial investigations of crime scenes. The camera had a solid red line that crossed the length of the body just under the 113-millimeter lens.

The woman walked over to the old maple tree that seemed to tower over the others. She was staring at the scar left on the bark where a couple had carved their initials deep into the trunk.

The park was a local hangout for the university students. It was technically closed after dark, but most of the my-daddy-is-a-lawyer kids didn’t care about the posted signs. Most of the time it was harmless fun, late-night make-out sessions for those who couldn’t get their roommates to leave, and sometimes a few beer bottles were discarded in the bushes that lined the lot. One of the freshman girls had disappeared a couple of years ago. Most of her friends thought that she had gotten hammered and decided to take a swim; they never did find a body.

The blonde’s husband, or at least I assumed he was her husband, didn’t seem to be interested in tree watching, or the park for that matter. He was wearing a dark navy baseball cap that was pulled low. I didn’t get a good look at the guy, but he was probably a matching counterpart of the blonde, the kind of guy beautiful girls like her usually end up with. He was walking off in the distance towards the parking lot as he shouted to the children that it was time to leave. The blonde smiled at the tree, like they were old friends that she had shared a secret with it. She turned around and skipped down the path to join her statuesque partner and the children. They loaded into a sleek black Acura SUV and then drove out of the parking lot. She studied me from the passenger seat as they pulled away; we caught eyes for a moment before they disappeared up the hill and around the corner. 

I loaded the film into the camera and then activated the electronic flash and released the button. The green light illuminated, and I focused on a rustic wooden bench close to the river, centered it in the viewfinder, and pressed the shutter button. The rapid snapping of the camera was just like I remembered from the movies. The photograph ejected from the film exit slot. The white borders encaged the moment, cementing it in time.

I laid the ghostly photograph flat on the picnic table and paced around while I waited for it to develop. The smell of pine was thick in the air. I remembered how my mother would come to the park and watch the ducks frolic in the river and laugh at the children while they chased each other and hid behind the maples.

I shook off the nostalgia and glanced down to study the photograph. I watched the outline of the bench take form like a ship emerging from a dense fog. Just below the seat of the bench I could make out the silhouette of a woman lying in the leaves; I could see a pool of red.

© Josiah A. Miller 2018. All Rights Reserved.