“Catherine Claire, did you take the picture off the mantel?”
I looked up from my book. Whatever picture it was apparently warranted the use of my whole damned name. Holding my place at the end of the paragraph with an index finger, I took a deep breath, and lifted my head to shout back.
“The picture from the wedding.”
I sighed, probably sounding more disgusted in my room than I did from downstairs.
“No, I did not. Maybe it got knocked over and broke.” Thank God. I hated that picture. Everyone looked like crap in it, anyway. She’d insist on having it front and center, saying “but we were all together”. That wedding sucked. We were all fat and miserable and it was hot, but “we were all together”. That was a picture I WOULD take, and I did flip it backwards if I brought someone home, but no, not this time.
I went back to my reading. But mom wasn’t done.
“Alex? Alex!” She was now at the foot of the stairs.
“Whaaaat?” A bellow from the depths of his room.
“Did you take the picture?”
He hated that picture more than I did, if that was possible. The mantel pictures were an attempt to decorate with faces of family. Half of them were in cheap or broken frames, the pictures themselves stuck to the glass with years of condensation. Some were Polaroids in frames the wrong size or shape, faded from years in the afternoon sun. I suppose I should have applauded her stab at making us look like we were all about togetherness or whatever, but if I’d really thought about it, the fact that everything was so mismatched and random might have driven me insane.
My door rattled, the shift in weight on the flooring indicating Alex was on the other side of it. Mom would have flung it open, thinking a closed door meant something weird was going on.
“Did you take it?” Confiding, conspiratorial. Nice that he had my back.
I heaved the book up onto my bed, creased open to my page, and stood with a sigh. I walked over and opened the door, face to face with my brother.
“No, Alex. I should have, but I didn’t.”
He’d started to change out of his school uniform, shirt unbuttoned with undershirt revealed, hair mussed, sleeves shoved up past his elbows.
Curiosity piqued, I brushed past him, and trotted downstairs into the living room. It was the hot mess it always was; no new attempts at cleaning or reorganizing anything had been made. I walked to the mantel. There were the Thomas Kinkaid houses and Hummel figurines, the marble urn from a dog we’d had cremated at some point. There was the smiling sea of faces; a few school pictures of first and second cousins, grandma and grandpa on a cruise, a glamour shot of Aunt Ella, and one or two older, textured photos of unknown family with strained expressions, probably Christmas card fails. But no wedding picture.
“Your school picture from last year is missing.”
I hadn’t realized Alex was behind me.
“That one I did take.” It had been a horrible picture, so bad dad grumbled about having paid for it, and nobody complained about that disappearance.
I noticed that there was no empty space where the group photo had once been. And it’s true, I had been guilty of culling pictures from time to time, but this one was not on me.
Not a huge deal. I went back to my life, unconcerned.
The next day, I’m hopping down the stairs to grab my stuff and get ready for the carpool, and dad puts out an arm and stops me dead.
“You’ve got to stop messing with your mother, Cat.”
…Like I’m awake enough for this conversation…
“Wha…? I don’t…”
He frowned, lips pressed tightly together.
“Stop with the pictures. Just stop.”
“This is seriously about the missing picture again? I didn’t take…”
He held up three fingers.
“Three missing pictures now, all ones with you in them.”
I felt my eyebrows rise and meet.
“She’s going through and counting pictures now? Why?”
He held up his hands.
“Dad, I didn’t take them! Ask Alex! Maybe he thought it was funny!” I pulled my backpack off the dining room table. “Am I going to get grounded over some missing pictures I didn’t even take?” I slung one of the straps over my right shoulder. “Which ones, now? She said the one from the wedding was missing, last night…”
“The one from Maine, by Thunder Hole, and the one from Hershey…”
My hand went to my hip.
“In the one from Hershey, you only see the back of my head. How is this all me?”
Long exhale. He looked older, bags forming under his eyes.
“Look, I’m trying to help you out here, but I gotta be honest, I don’t need to hear it from her. Just get the pictures back.” He checked his watch. “Where is Alex, anyway?”
“Probably still in the bathroom.” I pushed past dad and walked into the kitchen, opening the fridge and grabbing the orange juice. Maybe the pictures had been gone a long time, and she’d only just now noticed? Maybe some other family member was moving them around to mess with her? We’d had Uncle Carl over for Labor Day, and he’d drink and pull crap sometimes.
I heard Alex come downstairs, have his turn at being interrogated, and be released, bleary eyed, into the kitchen. He opened his mouth, but I shut it with a quick wave.
“Don’t.” I said.
Mutely, he grabbed a glass, and had himself some orange juice.
“Mom?” I peered around the back door, waiting for an answer.
I couldn’t believe I was the first one home. Mom’s car wasn’t in the driveway, and the back door was unlocked. Most of the time I wouldn’t even think of it, but if some weirdo was stealing pictures, why wouldn’t they take other stuff, like the Nintendo or the TV? I threw my backpack on a kitchen chair, and looked around. Mom hadn’t been home yet; no fresh butts in the ashtray, no open can of Pepsi. I opened the fridge and grabbed one for myself, popping the top, taking a sip as I looked around. If there was anyone who could stop themselves from going to see if any more pictures went missing, it wasn’t me. Of course, being home first, I’d get blamed again, but… I walked into the dining room, where the piano was mostly used to hold whatever doodads didn’t make it into the living room. We’d taken lessons once, but that had gone the way of the dodo when neither of us practiced more than one song apiece; him, The Pink Panther; me, the first movement of Fur Elise. I was careful not to touch anything, disturb cobwebs or dust bunnies. It definitely appeared untouched, and yet…
…there was not a single picture on the piano that had either Alex or me in it.
There were pictures of other random family members, living or dead, but no Alex or Cat baby pictures, cheerleading pictures, dance class or football pictures…I went to the living room, and same, no trace of me or Alex. Setting my Pepsi down, I climbed the stairs, opened up the crawl space in our parents’ bedroom, and pulled out the photo albums. Kneeling on the floor, I grabbed the one on top, and flipped through it…
Nothing. There was not a single picture of us, not even a space left where there might once have been a picture of us. I put down the one photo album, and grabbed one after another, from various stages of life, flipping through the laminated cardboard pages in disbelief…
“Cat? What are you doing?”
I jumped, covering the pages like I’d been caught with a Playboy.
“Alex, look…” I stood up, thrusting the photo album at him, flipping page after page after page. “There are no pictures of us. None.” I turned my eyes upward, gauging his reaction. He gingerly ran his fingers over the pages, as if they were made of some strange, unidentifiable substance.
“I don’t get it.” He took the book from me and flipped through, searching.
“If this is a joke, someone is really working overtime.” I walked out of the parents’ room and into mine, looking for one of my scrapbooks. They were mostly full of mementoes, but I knew they included a few small, faded pictures from a years-ago trip to DC. I pulled it out of the drawer, opened it, and flipped through the pages. There were pressed flowers, folded notes, pictures of elephants and tigers from the zoo, badly framed images of monuments.
Not a single picture of me or Alex.
“It’s like we’ve just…disappeared.” I heard Alex come into my room, but couldn’t stop looking at the scrapbook. I looked briefly in the mirror, a wild undefined fear that I’d faded away calmed by the sight of my own image.
“Why do you think?”
“Don’t you think if I had any thoughts on this I’d have said something?” I shoved my scrapbook back in the drawer, closing it incompletely. “I didn’t hear mom come in.”
“She’s not back yet.” He sat on my bed, uninvited. “Maybe she’s off getting rid of the pictures of us.”
I debated telling him to get his butt off my bed, but thought better of it. Instead I crossed my arms, rocking, ruminating. Nobody would go through so much to make a point, or for a practical joke. To be honest, I’d never thought about the pictures much, except to be bugged by them when people came over. But the idea that they were just…gone was really starting to gnaw at me.
“Maybe,” he spoke, after so much silence it made me jump, “maybe she’s not coming back because we aren’t here.”
I smacked his arm, a little too hard.
He shrugged, rubbing his arm where he’d been struck. “It’s no more weird a thought than the idea that our pictures disappeared for no reason at all.”
I gave a mirthless laugh.
“Maybe she’s wishing us away.”
“Drinking us away maybe. But not before 5.” He bounced up and down on the bed a few times.
The cars whirred by outside, picking up speed as the day ebbed. Still no mom, but dad would be home soon.
I felt something drop into the pit of my stomach. I turned quickly and ran down the stairs, into the dining room, over to the piano, Alex hot on my heels. I stared at the mantel, searching…
I exhaled. The pictures of mom and dad, both together and apart, sepia wedding photos, one or two of them at various family functions, or at mixed tables on vacation, remained untouched.
“They’re still here, at least.” I stepped back, scanning, blinking, staring.
“Almost makes me afraid to go to sleep. Like maybe we’ll disappear.” Now he went over, touched the pictures, and picked some up to look behind, finding nothing but dust bunnies.
“Maybe we already have.” He backed away.
“Then how come we see each other, Alex?”
“Maybe we got sucked into the same different dimension?”
Shaking my head, I walked into the living room, sat on the love seat, and clicked on the TV. Or tried to.
I kept trying with the remote, pressing the “on” button repeatedly, in spite of the lack of response.
“It’s not working. Maybe the batteries are dead.” I opened the back of the remote, rolling the batteries back and forth, in case they had some spark left in them. Alex walked over to the TV and tried pressing the “on” button there, but again, no response.
“Is it plugged in?” I called, replacing the back of the remote and re-securing the duct tape used to hold it closed.
“Yup.” He looked down at the outlet, just to be sure. “Maybe it’s the breaker?”
“The lights are on.” I looked under the shade and directly at the bulb, to confirm this. “Maybe something is wrong with the TV? I guess we’ll ask dad when he comes home.”
“If he comes home.” Alex frowned severely, paused a moment, then ran back upstairs.
“Checking the answering machine,” he yelled down. “Maybe there’s a message about where mom went.” I heard his Pumas thudding above me, and then stop dead.
The sound of his voice made the hairs on the back of my neck tingle. I rounded the corner and dashed up the stairs, two at a time.
“What…” It came out of my mouth beyond my control, the wind sucked out.
All the furniture had been moved.
Why hadn’t we noticed this before? The mattresses had been stripped, pulled off the bed frame and leaned against the window wall. The bed itself had been disassembled, and the two chests had been pushed up against the low wall where the bed had once been.
“We were just…” The words fell in space, landing on the floor.
“I know.” His voice trembled
I took Alex’s hand, afraid to look at him. His fingers were cold and damp in mine.
“Mom’s not coming home, is she,” he stated, his voice oddly dull in the disheveled room.
I squeezed his hand tighter, tears welling and grabbing at my throat.
“It’s…us. We’re not coming home Alex.” It didn’t sound like my voice; was it was even coming out of my body?
He turned his head quickly, opened his mouth to speak…
I took a deep breath, and ever so slowly turned my head to look behind us.
“What are you…”
The tears were running down my face in earnest now.
“Don’t look, Alex. Don’t look.” I took a ragged breath. “I love you, Alex.”
“I love you too, Cat.” The words were thick in his throat. He squeezed my hand, hard.
I closed my eyes, bowing my head, and waited. We were disappearing.