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Say Cheese

Talk about a photo finish, what a way to go.

By Amy ColemanPublished 5 years ago 14 min read

Researching personal history and heritage is important when trying to find out who you are. Every person that has come before us contributes to the person we are to become. Courtney knows all about family trees and where her family comes from. She was very close to her grandmother who had spent her whole life researching and documenting their family’s history. Courtney would spend hours listening to her grandma talk about distant relatives and their grand adventures. Even when her grandma would find scandal in the family line, she would look at Courtney and say, “every apple tree has a few rotten apples.”

It was no surprise when her grandma passed away. She had been telling Courtney for months that she could feel death knocking at her door. They had spent night and day together and she had made Courtney promise to carry on her work once she was gone. One night her grandma came to Courtney’s room and woke her up.

She placed a necklace in her hand and clasped it tightly shut, “I want to give this to you before I go.”

“But grandma, you never take it off? I can’t…”

Her grandma had smiled at her and ran her hand through Courtney’s long black curls. “It has kept me safe all these years and I need you to promise me you will never take it off. Promise me!” she had said sternly.

Courtney had said nothing and slipped the chain over her head. The wooden charm felt heavier than she thought it would. A silver swoosh made a spiral twist starting from the center of the wooden token and spinning out to the edge. She had wanted to wear it when she was younger, but her grandmother had always told her no and refused to take it off. She had been sad yet excited to have inherited such an important family heirloom. Things had gone downhill from there and her grandma passed away a few short days later.

In spite of the large family tree, it had been a small funeral. Courtney’s parents had skipped town when she was a baby and her grandma had raised her, put her through college, and promised to always love her.

Courtney inherited everything. The house, more money than she could ever spend, and her grandmother’s two cats all became her’s overnight. Omen is black as a moonless night and Serena is white as snow. The cats had shown up around the same time Courtney’s parents left and somehow had managed to outlive their owner. When she was younger Courtney remembers asking her grandmother how the cats were able to live so long without appearing to age.

“It’s magic, my love. I will tell you all about it someday,” she had replied with a wink.

That day had never come. Now Courtney sits alone in her big empty house with two magical cats purring at the foot of her bed. She drifts off to sleep to the sound of the gentle breeze outside and the hypnotic purr of her new companions.

She’s startled awake the next morning by a loud crash coming from downstairs. She descends the steps in time to see Serena prance out of her grandma’s study. The cat notices her and gives out a happy chirp as she bounds over and begins rubbing against Courtney’s legs. She picks her up and holds her close, “what did you do Serena?”

She opens the study door to find Omen playing in a stack of papers that had been knocked over. Serena hops out of her arms as Courtney sighs, “I guess I’ll clean this room first.” She could have sworn she closed the study door last night; her grandma never left the door open and one of her only rules was that the door remains closed.

Once the cats are fed, they hurry outside to play. The house is set back in the woods, and Omen and Serena spend most of their days out collecting mice and taking long naps in the spots of sun that penetrate the thick canopy of trees. Courtney needs them out of the way in order to clean up the study. Its been a month since her grandma passed and Courtney has needed every minute of this time to grieve her loss. The house that her grandma had managed to keep spotless has gotten a little disheveled, and Courtney decides it’s time to start cleaning. Her grandma spent most of her time in the study and all of her research is piled up around the room.

Courtney works in the study all morning long. She manages to get the desk cleared off and in order. There were a few times she was sidetracked by the random bits of information about distant relatives, but she was able to stick to the job at hand. It’s actually the cries from Omen and Serena that draw her out of the study. A light rain has started to dampen their play and the cats are ready to come in. After letting them in, Courtney grabs some lunch and goes back to the papers. Rain clouds have filled the sky and the room’s growing darker by the minute. She sets her drink down and turns on the desk lamp, but it immediately blinks out and she’s thrown into almost complete darkness. While surveying the room she’s drawn to a strip of light seeping out from under one of the bookshelves.

Courtney tries to get a closer look, but there are too many papers and books in the way. She finds a lamp in the corner of the room and plugs it in. It snaps to life and she squints as the bright light illuminates every corner. It takes a while to move all of the books, but once they’re out of the way she can clearly see an old wooden door behind the bookshelf. She carefully slides the shelf out of the way and tries the doorknob. It’s locked. Courtney remembers a key in the desk and digs through the drawer until she finds it. She holds it up in the light and turns around to find both cats sitting in front of the hidden door staring at her. She steps over Omen and Serena in order to unlock the door. A rush of cold air glides through the doorway as she slowly swings it open.

Courtney gasps at the large empty space before her. There are no windows and she stands frozen in the only door in and out of the room. There’s not a single piece of furniture, but it would only take away from the beauty within if there was any. Every wall is covered in realistic looking trees. The painted branches are dimensional and appear to move in a phantom breeze. From each branch there hangs a photograph with a name sketched below it. Courtney recognizes some of them from her grandma’s research. She looks down expecting to see the cats but Omen and Serena sitting patiently outside the door. She calls to them but to her amazement, they refuse to enter. Courtney’s attention is drawn to a black and white photo swinging on the walk beside her. Its distorted appearance sets it apart from the other pictures. A young girl can be seen sitting on a park bench. The photo looks clear with the exception of two smudges, one on her lap and the other by her feet. Courtney reaches up and wipes at the marks, but as her fingers touch the photo she feels a wind kick up around her and she’s lifted off her feet.

Everything goes blurry for a few moments and when it clears up she finds herself in a black and white world standing next to the girl on the bench. Courtney can see the leaves slowly rustling around her but she doesn’t feel any wind. The sound of the cat’s meowing causes her to look around, but she sees nothing. It sounds like Omen and Serena. Can it be that they came into the room and she’s hearing them on the other side of the picture? Courtney swings her hands up over her head to try and get the attention of some people standing off in the distance. It’s almost like their standing in a fog, but their figures are moving around like shadows not too far away. She can tell that one of them is the photographer by the way he’s standing over something that resembles an old camera on a tripod. There are two other people standing next to him who appear familiar, but she can’t make out who they are due to the blur that moves like a mist around them. It feels like they don’t belong in the picture and she tries to get a closer look. Courtney jumps as the photographer says, “say cheese” before she can get close enough. A bright flash momentarily blinds her and once her eyes clear again she’s standing back in the strange room in her grandma’s house.

Her first instincts are of fear and the idea she should lock the room and hide it back behind the bookcase. After giving it more thought she decides this must have been the magic her grandma was talking about. She wonders if Omen and Serena are from the picture she had visited; but if that’s the case how did they get out? Courtney wants to see more. She spends most of the day popping in and out of pictures enjoying flashes of moments from her families past. She learns that the newer the picture is the more animated the experience. People will move and talk around her, colors are brighter, and she can even smell flowers and foods. Older pictures are more stale and slow. They smell musty and offer little to no clues to the families story. She’s able to enjoy her time in the magical places until she hears the words “say cheese.” At that moment there is always a bright flash and she finds herself back in her grandmother’s study.

Courtney does lots of research and can’t believe everything she’s learned from the photos that have become such a large part of her life. There are so many photographs to pick from and she spends days getting lost in their moments frozen in time. She never interacts with the people in the pictures, but she wants to try, and Courtney knows exactly what photo she wants to try it with. Her nightstand holds a picture of her grandma from when she was Courtney’s age, it’s her favorite. Clutching it close to her chest she makes her way down to the study. If she places it on the wall maybe she can enter it and talk to her grandma again. Omen and Serena run around her legs almost tripping her. Their excited and meow anxiously as she hurries along. The cats stop at the threshold as she skips into the photo room.

Courtney has learned that when she puts up a family picture on the correct branch a new branch will form. The problem is she has to fill all the branches before she can move on to another generation. Her grandma had started so far back it has taken a while to find all the photos she needed in order to place the first photo of her grandma on the tree. She had worked very hard to fill branches leading up to her grandmother, having placed the photo of her great grandma and grandpa on the tree just yesterday. Today she’s going to see her grandma again, in person.

Courtney holds the picture of her grandmother up to the branch and the wall sucks it right in, indicating it has been put into its proper place. Her name shows up on the wall beneath her photo and a new branch stretches out underneath it. Courtney takes a deep breath and touches her grandmother’s face. Closing her eyes she can’t help but smile as the wind picks her up off her feet and she gets pulled in.

She finds herself standing in a study and wonders if something went wrong. Her heart suddenly skips a beat as her grandma, young and beautiful, comes walking into the room. She stops and looks at Courtney, studying her with dark plaintive eyes from across the room. Courtney wonders if her grandma even recognizes her at this age, but those fears are put to rest as a smile washes across her grandmother’s face.

“It’s so nice to see you darling!” she says while moving closer.

Courtney looks around, shocked by the one on one conversation. No one has acknowledged her existence in a photo so far. Completely overcome with emotion Courtney runs up to her in tears. She embraces her grandma, not wanting to waste these few fleeting moments with the only person that ever loved her. Courtney manages to squeak out “how?” amid her tears.

“I knew I would pass away someday, and I had to find a way to continue my work. You could have chosen any picture of me because my memories up to the day I died are piled in this room. That’s why we're here and not in that picture.” Courtney’s grandma holds her close and kisses her on the cheek. After stepping away her grandma looks down at her necklace. “My charm,” she says with a smile. “May I wear it, just one more time? I’ve missed it so much.”

Courtney looks down and holds the wooden token in her hand. Something wants to tell her grandma no, just like she did when Courtney was young, but it’s not going to hurt anything. Once the phantom “say cheese” is uttered she will be back in the photo room and her grandma will be dead again. “Of course you can, it’s your necklace after all.” Courtney slides it off over her head and hands it to the young woman standing before her.

Her grandma’s eyes light up as she runs her fingers over the silver spiral that appears to dance and swirl under her touch. A grin washes over her face as she slides it up over her head and letting it come to rest above her heart. “This symbol has always meant so much to me. It stands for life, creation, energy and so many other things. I could never put into words how special this charm is to me.”

“You know magic, don’t you,” Courtney stammers.

“I would think you know that answer by now, after all you’ve seen.”

“So you can come back with me?” Courtney exclaims.

Her grandma smiles and takes a few steps back, “It doesn’t exactly work like that love. Omen and Serena are proof of that. The two of them had belonged to my distant cousin, and I thought they were adorable. I found out, through research, that both cats had been shot by her father one night in a drunken rage. I knew then I had to help them. I learned all I needed to know about magic and photo travel in these books,” she says walking over to one of the shelves. She runs her fingers down their spines and Courtney shivers.

“This charm granted me the power to enter pictures, but I couldn’t take anything out with me. I could only take something if I left something in its place.”

Courtney remembers the two figures in the distance that she couldn’t make out. She remembers thinking they didn’t belong, and now she knows why. “But who? Who did you leave behind to take their place?”

“I think you already know that as well, my love.”

Her grandma’s features have gotten dark and Courtney doesn’t even recognize her anymore. “My parents,” she answers in almost a whisper.

Her grandma smiles, “such a smart girl. They were neighbors of mine that kept coming over to check on me. They treated me like family because their own families lived so far away. I remember the day they brought you home. They trotted you over to my house in your little buggy and plopped you into my lap. Your mom announced I was to be your grandmother.”

Courtney tries to take a deep breath but it keeps getting stuck in her throat. “So, we're not even related? You’re not my real grandma?”

“Your mother stumbled into my picture room one day and drug your father in by his ear. They insisted on an explanation. So I showed them. I took them into the picture with me and scooped up the cats before returning to my house. I was amazed it worked, really I was. That day I moved you into my home and started planning my own resurrection. You should feel honored, I raised you and gave you an amazing life so you could one day take my place.”

Courtney watches as the woman she called grandma all her life picks up an old camera off a pile of books, “now, say cheese,” she says as a bright flash fills the room.


About the Creator

Amy Coleman

I have been writing most of my life. It started as a great way to escape my problems and developed into a passion from there. I do have a BA in journalism and mass communication and love doing anything that involves being creative.

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