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A Thousand Words
Feedback from the radio drowned out the patter of rain hitting the window and the beating sounds of the screen being pounded by the wind. He didn’t bother getting out of his chair to change the station; he was too focused on the portraits staring at him from his mantel. He didn’t bother to feed the fire - too much heavy lifting - and Elliot would be coming soon.
“He can do it for me,” he thought, just as the doorbell rang.
“Father, why didn’t you light the fire? You’ll downright freeze to death, and I have no desire to drag a frozen corpse to the burial home. And with the funeral prices these days...”
Elliot examined the pictures on the mantel one by one. His father stared at him, noticing the deep concentration in his eyes. His eyes were blue, the blue of his mother's. The blue that got a little less bright on that day in June fifteen years ago, and a little bit less every year after that. Three picture frames. There were always three picture frames on the mantel, and Elliot knew that. He counted them every time he visited his father, purely out of habit.
Elliot never did like the picture of himself. He was young and awkward, with a messy hairdo and bones too long for the skin they were in. His photo sat between those of his parents. The frames were a matching set of three and were spaced evenly apart from each other.
“Son, do get on with lighting that fire. As you said yourself, I am on my way to becoming a human popsicle.”
Elliot turned away from the smiling faces and grabbed the firewood. When he turned back again, he saw his father standing in the corner, his face contorted with fear.
“Wh-wh-who are y-you?” he stuttered to Elliot.
“I am your son, Elliot. If this is some kind of trick, I swear... Oh, I get it. Very funny, dad. You were always a joker, and still are, even at your age!”
“N-no. Get out. Get out now! Before I call th-the police!”
“You really don’t recognize me?”
The only response Elliot got was a frightened look. He had heard about memory loss in the elderly, but this was so sudden. Hadn’t his father recognized him just moments before? Elliot slowly walked towards the door with his head hanging low. Just before he left, Elliot glanced at the pictures on the mantel. Elliot counted to himself. One, two... As Elliot left, he thought about which one was suddenly missing. It was the photo in the middle.
Elliot’s father stared back at the two faces on the mantel, that of himself and of the woman he sometimes imagined sitting in the chair across from him. The radio was on, tuned in to his wife’s favorite oldies station. The fire had died overnight and he shivered a little now, but he didn’t bother to light the fire for himself. Too much heavy lifting, he thought, just as there was a knock on the door. It opened with a squeak and he heard a familiar voice.
“Top of the morning, sir! I just popped by to check on the fire.”
It was that boy who had broken into the house yesterday. He watched as the boy picked up the firewood and threw it in the fireplace, and with a quick strike of a match, the blustery day seemed a little less somber. He watched the affectionate glow on the young man’s face as he stared at the two pictures on the mantel.
“Is this your wife?” Elliot said, already knowing the answer he would receive.
“Yes, well, she was. She’s gone now. Your eyes are the same color as hers, you know? Blue as sapphires.”
Elliot stared at the two remaining pictures and wondered what had happened to the picture of himself. Then he stared into the fire and reminisced about the mother he missed so much, and how his father never left her side during the long illness preceding her death. But when Elliot raised his head, the image of his mother was gone from the mantel, and the picture of his father stood alone.
“Excuse me sir, what happened to the picture of your wife? I could have sworn I just saw it here,” Elliot said, turning around to his father.
“I’m sorry but you must be mistaken. I’ve never been married.”
The drip, drip of the remaining raindrops aligned perfectly with the steady tick, tock of the old grandfather clock. The room was dark, except for the few surviving embers of the previous night’s fire. These embers shone a dim spotlight on the solitary photo resting on his mantel. It looked back at the old man with friendly eyes, eyes full of stories and memories. The eyes had a softness that revealed their owner’s kindness. His eyes had done it billions of times: opened and closed like the shutter of a camera. Blinking, it was second nature to him. But this time, when those eyes opened, they were met with one last snapshot - the sight of an empty mantel.
White walls, white floors, white tables, white chairs, yet the room still looked dark and gloomy, as if to replicate the sky outside. The harsh fluorescent lights of a hospital do nothing to lighten its despondency. Rain had hung up its coat and called it a day, but the clouds remained. It was uncommonly quiet, and the only thing that could be heard was the sound of silent madness.
He sat up in his white bed and made out what he could from the signs: Psychiatric Intensive Care. His eyes wandered to the edge of the bed to a medical chart bearing a name. John Doe, the name used for those who have no name, for those who have nothing to call their own. Gone were the stories and the memories, stolen from his mind like the pictures from the mantel.