G. L. Aster

Impatiently I shifted from foot to foot, pouting a little as I waited for my mom to finish fiddling with the camera and take the picture. The soupy air seemed to stick to my skin, and I imagined it filling my lungs like wads of cotton and suffocating me. My dad’s arm around my shoulder wasn’t helping, either. The weight of it pressed my shirt to my neck, and beads of sweat stuck to the fabric to my skin.

“Are you almost done, Mom? It’s hot and I want to go back to the hotel.”

She looked at me and fluttered a hand, her glittery pink nail polish sending bits of light into my eyes. “Almost, Tyler. Be patient.” A few more button clicks and she smiled in satisfaction. “There we go! Now, big smiles, you two! One, two, three!” A small orange light flicked on at the corner of the camera and the shutter clicked shut.

“Ugh, finally.” I peeled my dad’s sweaty arm off my shoulders and pulled my shirt away from my neck. “Eww. Can we go back to the hotel now?”

My dad sighed and looked at my mom. “Gina, are you done for today? The temperature is still going up and I don’t think there’s that much else to see around here.”

My mom sighed, tapping her fingers against her cherry pink lips. “I suppose so. I only hope we have enough pictures to send to your grandparents!”

I made a groaning sound. “Mom, you have, like, fifteen thousand photos! Grandma and grandpa are probably sick of them!”

She looked at me dismissively. “Grandparents are never sick of seeing their grandchildren. And if we are going back to the hotel, we might as well go now. There’s no point in just staying out here for nothing.” My mom handed me the camera and strode off ahead, fluffing her hair as she went. Following her, my dad said, “Come on, Tyler. Maybe we can get some ice cream from the gelato palace next door.”

I nodded and walked after them, flipping open the screen on the camera and pressing a button bring up all the photos taken today. The first one I saw was of my dad and I, both of us looking hot and uncomfortable. The stone fountain we were standing in front of took up most of the background, but I could see a spot of red behind my dad’s shoulder. I zoomed in on the spot and it turned into the blurry figure of a girl in a red hoodie. I looked around, confused, but couldn’t see any girl anywhere, so I shrugged and ran after my parents.

“Hey, dad! This time can I get two scoops instead of just one…”

 

Five years later.

 

I stand with my back to the sun, the camera held loosely in my sweaty fingers. My mom pulls my dad to her side, fussing until she has him in just the right position.

“Alright, sweetie, take the picture.” She plasters on a smile worthy of a toothpaste commercial, and I raise the camera to my eye, squint through the grimy lens, and press down on the shutter. As I do, though my finger slips a bit and I accidently take three pictures, instead of just one. My mom steps away from the fountain she was standing in front of and takes the camera from me.

“Thanks you, sweetie. You’re a dear.” She leans and pecks my cheek, no doubt leaving a smear of lipstick. I wait to wipe it off until she turns back around.

“You’re welcome.” I sigh and stuff my hands back into my pockets, staring at my feet. My shoes used to be white, but are now a dingy grey, covered with dust from walking around all day on dirty pavements. I’m not much of a sightseer, but my parents both think I should “experience culture” by following them around as they explore whatever city they dragged me off to vacation in. Not that I don’t like going on vacations, sure, I love them, but, my idea of a good time isn’t listening to my parents blather on about the history of a post office in the middle of nowhere. Or, in this case, a fountain at the edge of a park. Especially if this is the second time I’ve heard all about it.

“Tyler! What do you think of including the rhododendron bush in the picture?”

I shrug. “Whatever you want, mom. They’re your photos. Besides, there’s nothing here we haven’t already see, remember? We came here when I was thirteen.” I sit down on the edge of the stone fountain and scuffle my feet in the gravel ring surrounding it. I have long since accepted that my shoes are far beyond saving.

The artificial red of my mom’s hair looms in front of me. “Up up! No time for sitting! There are still plenty of things left to see that we didn’t get to last time and I intend to take advantage of every moment of daylight! And don’t complain; I remember you telling me that coming here was one of your favorite vacations!”

I make a noncommittal noise and swing a look at the sun. It can’t be more than half an hour until it sets. Not too bad. One of my knees makes a cracking sound as I stand and I rub it as I plod off after my parents.

 

Later, back in our hotel room, I lie on my bed, one hand dangling off the edge, one scratching my stomach. My eyesight blurs as the baby blue of the ceiling fills my vision. I hear the muffled noises of the TV from the other room. Even on vacation my mom still needs to watch her sitcoms. My head lolls to the side and my eyes fix on the camera sitting on the bedside table. After we got back to the hotel my dad had asked me to upload all the pictures onto the computer he had brought, I guess so he could make a digital album, or so my mom could send them off to my grandparents. Seriously, she sent them practically the exact same photos five years ago. Even the one in front of the fountain is pretty much the same. Groaning softly, I roll over and snatch the camera off the table before sliding off the bed. I shuffle over to the desk across from me and boot up the computer, watching the bright colors of the screensaver fade away to the desktop. The computer makes a quiet beeping noise as I connect it to the camera with a USB cord. A few clicks later rows of pictures appear on the screen. I scroll through them, opening a few as I go. I also open up the file of photos from the last time we were here, five years ago, just to see how many times my mom took a picture of the same thing. Soon I get to the bottom few pictures of the park and the fountain. I click on the three photos I took of my parents in front of the fountain. Two of them are useless, blurred from my hand slipping, but the third one is alright.

My parents smile out at me from the screen as I press the keys to save the picture to the computer. The file downloads, and I am about to close the photo when I stop, and zoom in on the back corner. I remember something and quickly open up back up the folder with old vacation photos and search through them until I find the photo of my dad and I standing on front of the same fountain. I bring them side to side and study them closely. In the first photo, from when I was thirteen, the fuzzy shape of a girl in a red hoodie hovers over my dad’s right shoulder, almost behind my head, practically blurred out of existence. In the second one that I took less than an hour ago, I see another red dot, this time almost at the edge of the frame. The coincidence tugs at me, like little hooks embedded in my skin, so I enlarge the photo some more.

The red dot turns into a hoodie, worn by a girl with long, dark brown hair. I frown at the computer screen. Then, not quite being able to believe the coincidence, I slowly magnify the first photo. The same girl stands in the background, wearing the same red hoodie, although it appears too big for her. By squinting at the photo I can just barely make out her braids and pink sunglasses. I chuckle a little. I remember that day being blisteringly hot, so she must’ve being seriously overheating. After studying the girl in both photos for a little while, I shrug. She’s not that obvious either of the photos and my parents probably won’t even notice. In fact, I’m amazed that I noticed. Feeling rather absurdly proud of myself, I close down the computer and fall back on my bed.

The rest of the evening passes in a blur, dinner, TV, a quick shower, and soon I’m just about ready to lie back down on my bed. Right before I slide under the covers, I stop, and look over my shoulder at the computer. Something urges me to go over to the desk, and I open up the computer again. The picture of my parents in front of the fountain still fills the screen. I can’t help myself; I zoom in to the girl’s face again. The coincidence strikes me as too odd to really be a coincidence. I check the date on top of today’s photo. July 18, 2009. Somehow I know what I will find as I look over at the first: July 18, 2004. I sit back in my chair and frown. So what if she happened to be at same the park on the same day at the same time wearing the same thing five years later. The bigger coincidence should be that we happened to vacation to the same place twice and be there to take the picture! Still, though, something pulls me toward the girl in the photo. For a brief moment I look back toward my bed, soft and inviting, but I know that if I do nothing this could bug me for a very long time. Grumbling to myself, I pull on my socks and shoes and throw on a jacket: it’s nowhere near as hot as it was five years ago, and nighttime besides.

Before leaving I stick my head through the door to my parents’ room. “Hey, mom? I’m just going out for a bit. I want to get some…ice cream.” I wince at the lousy excuse.

My mom’s reply trickles back to me. “Alright, sweetie. Be careful.” I let the door swing shut and leave the room.

 

“In loving memory of Christian, Angie, and Kyla Hamel. Never will we forget.”

I stand in front of a metal plaque, affixed to the back of a stone bench with two planter boxes filled with flowers on either side. By returning to the spot in front of the fountain where we took the picture, I had been able to figure out where the girl had been standing and had crunched along the gravel path to the bench where I found the plaque with the three names, hard to read due to the unfortunate lack of streetlights. I don’t know who they are, or what connection they have to the girl in the red hoodie, but I stand silently for a minute, my hands in my pockets, eyes respectfully closed.

Just as I am about to leave I hear feet crunching on the gravel. I turn to see the girl in the red hoodie standing beside me, her dark hair like a curtain between us. Even though I can’t see her face, I can tell she is looking at the plaque, too. For a moment I watch her, then turn to go, feeling that she might want to be left alone.

“I can still hear them.”

I swing back around. “Pardon?”

“I can still hear them yelling.” Slowly she turns her head, revealing a face with puffy red eyes, and tear tracks running down her cheeks. Her voice is hoarse and raspy.

Another moment goes by. “Sorry, who are you?”

A pained smile cracks the distraught glass of her face. “Alexis Hamel.”

My eyes flick to the panel, then back to her face. Her smile tightens, becoming more of a grimace. She tips her head up to the cloudy sky, and for some absurd reason I remember hearing on the weather forecast earlier that it was likely to rain tonight.

“I don’t even remember what we were arguing about…” More tears streak down her face, running out of the corners of her eyes, some disappearing into her dark hair.

Uncomfortably, I rock back and forth on the balls of my feet. “Um, sorry, but I don’t really know what you’re talking about. Were you related to them, or–”

A wrenching noise comes from her throat. “We were in the car. My mom, my dad, and my older sister.  And me. We were driving to the swimming pool. We would always to go the community pool on Saturdays. My mom didn’t want us to go this week because she was sick, but I whined until my dad said we could go. It was just after we had rounded this corner. My sister said something, I can’t even remember what anymore. We started arguing. My mom turned around to tell us to stop, but I just started yelling at her, too. For a split second my dad turned around, too, to tell me to stop, then…” She buries her face in her hands. “I can’t remember what we were arguing about,” she repeats. “Why can’t I remember?”

Hesitantly I reach out a hand and touch her shoulder. She’s shaking. “I’m sorry.” Suddenly she turns and throws her arms around me, squeezing my ribs tightly. Awkwardly I pat her back, confused, and a long moment passes with me just standing there, looking at this strange girl crying into my shoulder. Since her head comes to just under my chin, the sounds of her crying are muffled, buried in my jacket, but they still leak out. The sound of them makes something twang inside my chest, and I want to put my arms around her, to take her sadness away. I raise them, then put them back down, unsure if the gesture would be appreciated, when I hear her voice seep through my jacket.

“‘We just bought you a new hoodie, Alexis.’” She clings on tighter. “That’s the last thing my mom ever said.”

I look down at her red hoodie, now worn and almost too small, then at the date at the top of the plaque. July 18, 2003. “Oh,” I say, then put my arms around her for real, as if I can shut the world away from her. “I’m sorry.”

I don’t know how long we stand there, in the dark, with the first few drops of rain beginning to fall from the sky, but after a while I feel her stiffen, and her hands release their grip on me. I relax my arms from around her and step back, strangely reluctant to let go. Once again Alexis raises her head, but this time, instead of sadness, I see a wild fury in her eyes.

“You’re sorry? You’re sorry?! Why would you be sorry? You don’t know me, you didn’t know my family, why would you give a shit about them? It’s not your fault they’re dead! None of this has anything to do with you, so why don’t you just mind your own goddamn business?!” She brings her hands up and shoves me, violently. I stagger back a step, and the small of my back collides with the stone bench, causing pain to flare up my spine, but all I can do is stare at her. Some of her hair is still snagged on one of the buttons on my jacket but she rips it free without even looking.

“Go! Leave me alone!” Her voice breaks on the word ‘me’. I raise my hands in helpless supplication but she moves as if to shove me again. “GO!” This time it’s almost a scream.

All I can do is turn to stare at her as I slowly walk away, raindrops gently floating down to land all around me. The last thing I see before I round the corner is Alexis Hamel on her knees behind the bench built to commemorate her family’s death, head in her hands, her shoulders shaking.

 

I slide my room key into the slot, slowly. Time seems to have been reduced to a crawl, the door taking an hour to open. The three steps I take to untie my shoes, a year. It seems an eternity before I am stretched out, still fully clothed and damp from the rain, on my bed.

My dad leans in to check on me. “Oh, you’re back. How was the ice cream?”

Right. Ice cream. “Good.” My voice is a rasp. I clear my throat. “Good.” Better.

He says something in reply, but I don’t hear it. I just roll onto my side, and close my eyes, Alexis Hamel’s voice still ringing in my ears.

 

The next day I wake sore and stiff, with a bad taste in my mouth. I can feel two burning handprints on my chest where Alexis shoved me, though a quick inspection shows there’s nothing there. I lower my shirt and stare at myself in the mirror, not really sure what I’m looking for. Abruptly I force myself to turn away and start getting ready for the day.

After brushing my teeth, I open the connecting door to my parents’ room. My mom is still in the bathroom, probably blow–drying her hair, and my dad sits at his computer, reading the local news headlines. He turns around as he hears me enter.

“Morning! How are you?” The bright sound of his voice seems to grate against my ears, and my chest prickles in response.

I make some noncommittal noise in response and about to go back to my room when I see something on the computer screen. I move to join him at the desk, and he stands up, offering me the chair. Wordlessly I slide into it staring at the words on the screen. I click on the headline, and the article appears on the screen: “Local girl found drowned in Langer Community Center swimming pool.

Behind me my parents are talking, but I don’t hear them. The only sound in my ears is a muffled buzzing, and a stab of agonizing pain goes through my chest. I read the article, each word turning me to a frozen block of ice, a block of ice with two blazing spots marking it in the shape of handprints. Late last night Alexis had broken in to the swimming pool where her parents had always taken her, slipped, and hit her head. She had fallen into the swimming pool and drowned. The rest of the article blurs into meaningless nonsense. The only thing I can feel is my chest burning, marking me, telling me that it’s my fault. My fault. I shouldn’t have left. I should’ve stayed, should’ve done something, should’ve–

My mom leans over my left shoulder. “Oh dear, how terrible! Tyler, why are you reading this horrible news so early in the morning?” She sees my face. “Oh. I’m sorry. Did you know her?”

A long moment goes by, and I shake my head. She looks at me sadly, then tells me to start packing, as apparently my dad’s work office called him in and we need to go home a day early. That’s fine. Anything’s fine. I nod, and return to my room.

Soon all my clothes are stuffed back into my suitcase, every sign I was ever here gone, save for the bag sitting in the middle of the floor, and my jacket, still in a heap on the bed. I pick it up. It’s crinkled from being slept in, and as I shrug it back on I see a single dark brown hair caught on one of the buttons. I close my eyes and let the burning in my chest drive away all other sensation. In my mind’s eye I see Alexis, crazy with grief and anger, returning to the last place her parents were taking her. Not thinking straight, and driven nearly to the breaking point by guilt, she would slip in to the building, with no one around to see her. I can see her, as if she is standing in front of me, her dark hair all around her face, wrapped up tightly in her hoodie, half blinded by the tears streaming down her face. Then I see her feet, wet from the rain, slip on the pool deck, and I hear the crack as her head collides with the floor–

Suddenly I have to get out, get away from this hotel. I yank open the door and run down the hallway, heedless of the wordless exclamation from my mom as I bolt out of my room. I rush down the stairs, out through the hotel lobby and down the street. People and cars flash past me in streaks of light. I don’t even know where I’m going, until I find myself back at the fountain. During the last few steps to the bench I feel as though I am wading through cement, something thick and heavy dragging my feet down. I stand in front of the bench, where I see a plaque identical to the one on the back. The burning in my chest stretches to behind my eyes and something heavy and sharp sits in my throat. I reach out and pluck a flower from one of the planter boxes. Taking the hair from my jacket, I wind it around the flower and place it on the bench. Tears form in my eyes and I lower my head.

“I’m sorry.” I whisper. “I’m sorry I didn’t save her. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” Time stands still around me, all the sounds of life in the city coming to a halt as I stay in front of the bench, whispering to the dead.


G. L. Aster