[Looking forward to a fun weekend at the ol’ beach place? Don’t read this story! ]
It was strange to hear only the waves toppling onto the shore. He was used to arriving to the happy chatter of children and the shouts of families who said, in unison, “The Anders are here! The Anders are here!” But other than the crunch of gravel under his slowing tires, the lot was silent.
John took one step out of the car and tasted the air. No smoke, either wood or tobacco. Only a hint of salt and sea foam.
He walked up to the front door and pushed it open. The bent lock shared space with a faded brown “Welcome” mat, which had a number of blue and green spots on it. A beam of dust-choked light met him from a bay window on the far wall.
The first thing John noticed was a foot-by-foot portrait above the sand buckets. Two sun-kissed faces sat under a pair of sun-weathered foreheads. There were two gray-haired and white-toothed heads to the left. In the background were four people playing Frisbee, one of which had a mess of red on his scalp. He was by far the shortest.
At the bottom left of the photo was the number ‘78. John traced it with his fingers, then walked further into the hall. A rotting floorboard moaned under his feet.
A second photo lay face-up and covered in dust. He blew the dirt off, revealing a whole crowd of people in the living room. The red-haired child was much taller in this shot, the two gray heads a bit shorter, but everyone else looked their normal selves. Four families were squeezed into two pearl-white sofas; they had pearl-white smiles to show for it.
The picture showed a faint black line on the wall. John set down the picture and looked up to see a maze of cracks behind two gray and brown couches. If he squinted, he could see a ghost-like image of the families sitting and laughing with one another.
That picture was marked with a fat, bold 87. He tossed it on the table like a playing card and continued into the sunroom, where the bay window displayed the beach through a shattered pane. The wind blew a few grains of sand into the room.
A small Polaroid photo adorned the window frame. John untacked it and came eye-to-eye with the largest crowd yet: thirty people, perhaps, playing a chaotic game of football on the sand. The two people with gray hair were absent, but the child with red hair was now the tallest in the picture. Two wrinkled foreheads chased after him, but he was just steps away from the endzone with a football in his outstretched hand.
John smiled. His favorite photograph. He felt the silver “95” with his thumb and laid it against the pane.
A wooden stairway sagged with the weight of thousands of footsteps. He contributed fourteen more, testing each step to see if it would hold up. The right banister cracked in two at the touch of his hand.
There was one more photo he needed to see. It was the sharpest and clearest yet, but something about the shot looked a little off. There were only two families in front of the bedroom doors. It was a tight crop—they were bunched together along the wall—but the picture was still empty, somehow. The wrinkled foreheads were hunched over and tried hard to smile. A red-haired man stood in between them and tried to smile, too.
‘08. This number was the smallest yet, hidden in the top left corner. He flexed the photo in his hand, wondering if it was best to tear it up and not let anyone see past the nineties.
John breathed in deeply and dropped the photo on the table. The wallpaper in the bedrooms had faded into pastel colors. They used to be the brightest blue and green.
He swayed down the staircase and planted two shaking feet on the ground. There were holes in the floor, holes in the wall—holes that all the spirit in this place had drained out of, long ago.
A bulky Polaroid camera caught his eye. John raised a thin arm and dragged it off the shelf. It had one card of film left in the slot.
He hoisted it up, turned it towards himself and reached for the shutter button. It gave out a flash of light that—for a hundredth of a second—bought back the sunny years.
John watched as the film developed. The walls came into view at first, followed by the stairway and the windows. Then came the cracks. Then came the stains and tears in a once-proud rug below him. Then came the deflated football that used to be the centerpiece of the beach house.
And then came him, a brown-suited man with a few hairs of gray poking through the red.
He drew a 1, then a 5 on the white part of the film and set it on the table. Five minutes later, he was driving a dented blue sedan with the beach behind him and the remnant of a house in the rear-view mirror.