On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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Sally had been putting this day off for weeks, and no-one blamed her. The house was just as it had always been from the outside, but as soon as she unlocked and opened the front door, she could feel the difference.
It was a little colder, and the air was slightly stale, but what was most noticeable was the silence. It sat inside the doorway like a tangible thing, wrapped around the coat rack and the little bench where her father used to sit and change his shoes whenever he left or returned.
The silence was almost like a preservative, she thought; a coating that had been sprayed into the place, holding it still and preventing any further change. It was a silly thought, but it also felt true.
It had now been just over a month since her father died, a scant two years after her mother had passed away. There were little clues everywhere that the house had been lived in by a man alone, trying to follow the rituals of his old life with a woman, and not entirely managing it. Newspapers in a pile by the door. Dust on top of the framed pictures and paintings on the walls of the downstairs hallway.
Sally saw a pair of her mother’s shoes still sitting there below the bench, and she knew that they were as much a shrine as an oversight. She wiped away a stray tear, knowing that it wouldn’t be the last of the day.
She had spent so much time in this house over the past two years — more than in her own — and even before then, she had visited several times per week. Caring for her father in his final years, the old man increasingly bewildered by being suddenly without his wife, had made this house familiar to Sally in the way that can only come from having to perform all the smallest of daily tasks. A person could visit a place a hundred times, but to truly know it, you had to be there for the most mundane and the most necessary and the most unglamorous aspects of human existence.
There was a pile of still-sealed envelopes inside the front door below the letterbox, alongside gaudy leaflets of every sort, but she ignored them. They were of no consequence now. She went through to the living room, which was aptly named because her father had latterly spent almost all of his time there, and Sally had been present for most of it. She had sat in every chair, looked out of every window, and read every book a dozen times.
Everything was just as it had been on the day that would now always be with her, for the remainder of her life. Just as she’d found it after the unanswered regular morning phone call, and the hurried ten-minute walk from Sally’s own home which only took five minutes on that occasion. After the fumbling with the front door key, and the calling out, and then the discovery and knowing instantly that her father was no longer with her.
His chair was just as it had been, and this fact was somehow offensive to her, as if it was an inconsideration and a rudeness that the kind young people with the ambulance hadn’t smoothed the fabric and plumped the cushions after they’d taken him out. She shook her head, banishing the train of thought.
But something was different.
She knew it without knowing what or why, and for a moment Sally felt the tingle of praeternatural awareness on the back of her neck. Then her gaze fastened upon the small table that had been a resting place for thousands of cups of tea, and dozens of magazines, and lists of things to do, and bills to be paid, and everything else. It was only a coffee table, near to the armchair that Sally favoured, and today it held a book.
She didn’t recognise it, and indeed she was certain she’d never seen it before in her life, but she most certainly did recognise the photograph on the cover. It was a picture of her when she was a child, and the original was in a silver frame on a bedside table upstairs, on the side that had always been her mother’s.
This one was printed, though; glossy and vivid, and it occupied the whole of the front cover. There was no title, or any other words. She approached the book and picked it up, opening it to a random page.
More pictures of her, many with one or both of her parents visible too, but some with just Sally herself. She turned the page, then another, seeing that there were no words at all, only hundreds upon hundreds of images.
She knew many of the places, perhaps even most of them, but the scenes when she was younger were hazy in her memory. She moved backwards and forwards through time as she leafed through the book, seeing herself as a teenager, and as a newborn, and as a graduate and a young professional and a middle-aged woman, and everything before and after and in between.
Sally realised that there were many photos from times and places where there had been no camera, or no images recorded — yet they were there in front of her nonetheless.
She flipped to almost the very end, and saw the room that she was standing in, herself shown sitting in the armchair and her father in his own, both reading. It seemed to be from mere weeks ago. But no-one had been there to take the photo.
She looked around, trying to find the same vantage point, but there was nothing to see; just the familiar walls and furniture. No concealed lens. No window offering the needed angle. She closed the book.
Her pulse thudded, but she wasn’t afraid. The house had warmed, and while it was still silent, she didn’t feel alone.
Sally looked down at the volume in her hands, and she slowly opened it once more, at the beginning. She saw that there were a few words there after all.
For our little girl, it said.
This is the story of how we loved you.
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