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‘What the hell is all this?’ Jack asked.
He had come home late again, doing overtime for the third night that week. Through the whole car ride home, he’d looked forward to sneaking inside—so as to not wake up Rose and the kid—and making himself a sandwich.
Cold cuts and mayonnaise on rye and a beer in a dark kitchen. It wasn’t much of a dream, but it was far too late—and he far too tired—to set ambitions higher. He just wanted to eat, relax, and go to bed, to catch however many hours’ sleep he could before he had to drag himself back out to the car and start yet another day of the same shit. Was that too much to ask?
Instead, he had come home to an entry full of dusty cardboard boxes, and Jackie Jr. still awake and rooting through them. Jack’s hopes of a quiet, stress-free night had died instantly.
It wasn’t that he didn’t want to see his family; he loved both of them more than anything. He just couldn’t deal with them right now, and he certainly didn’t want them to have to see him in his current mood.
‘What the hell is this?’ he asked again. ‘What’s going on here?’
Rose stuck her head out of the kitchen and smiled at him. For a moment, Jack almost resented her ability to smile while he himself was too beaten down to do the same.
‘Your old things,’ she said. ‘Your mother’s cleaning out the attic.’
Jack stared at the boxes. One of them was full of his old school notebooks; another held old painting supplies, no doubt worthless after 20 years inside a box. He peered inside another open one—the one Junior was rifling through—and saw that it held even more junk.
‘What does she think we’re supposed to do with all this crap? Why’d you let her unload it all on us?’
Rose’s smile faded. ‘I didn’t let her,’ she said, a note of hurt in her voice. ‘I thought we might find some things you’d want to keep. Whatever we don’t want, we can just take to the dump.’
Great. Now his weekend would be eaten up rifling through old garbage that nobody wanted and then driving it out to the dump. So much for his other plans.
He looked at Rose and found he couldn’t blame her for it. She had probably succumbed to Jack’s mother’s relentless nagging like everyone did in the end. He wished he’d never introduced the two, but Jackie’s birth had made it hard to exclude his mother from their life. She had a right to know her grandson.
‘Thanks,’ he told Rose. ‘I’m sure there’s something I want in there. Sorry for snapping at you.’ He knelt down and addressed his sitting son. ‘You, on the other hand, have no excuse to be up this late.’
‘Mom said I could!’
Jack looked at Rose and saw her blush apologetically. ‘I guess I did,’ she said. ‘But your father’s right, it’s getting very late. Go brush your teeth.’
‘I’m not tired,’ Jackie protested.
‘You’ve got school tomorrow,’ Jack said. ‘No excuses.’
‘My math teacher’s sick or something. I don’t have class until ten.’
Jack checked his watch. ‘You’ve already stayed up longer than I would have let you. Get moving.’
The kid sighed and dragged himself to his feet, making a show of his reluctance. Then he said, ‘By the way, Dad, you’ve got some sick VHS tapes. You should digitize them or something.’
‘VHS tapes. You know, old movies? Come on, you’re the one who lived in the ’90s, you should know what they are. How come you stopped collecting them?’
Jack stared at him. The boy’s voice echoed in his head; the same three letters repeated:
A cold shiver ran down Jack’s spine, and he felt his vision darken as the sudden memories crept back into his mind. How had he ever forgotten them?
‘Just go to your room,’ he mumbled.
Jackie startled at his voice, then went off into the bathroom. Jack stared after him, his eyes slightly unfocused, unwanted memories crawling at the edges of his mind.
‘Is everything all right, honey?’ Rose asked.
He blinked. ‘Huh? Yeah. I’m just. . . tired. And, you know. Teenagers.’ He shook his head. ‘Why don’t you go to bed as well? I’m just going to make a sandwich and head off myself.’
‘All right then,’ she said, but lingered. ‘Listen, I was thinking. We should do something over the weekend. Just the two of us. You could use a break.’
‘That sounds nice,’ Jack said, distantly. ‘Good night.’
She left him, then. After a while, Jack heard his son finish in the bathroom and slink into his room, and then his wife went into theirs. Jack waited for another couple of minutes, then stood quickly and began to open the boxes, searching for the tapes. His old tapes.
As he searched, the memories grew stronger, probably amplified by the presence of his old things. He began to see double: his eyes aware of the apartment he had lived in for the last three years, while his mind recalled his childhood home. Hell, half these boxes carried its smell. Any time he had been back there after moving out, he had smelled it: lake water mingled with the indefinable scent made by old houses—and in more recent years, with his mother’s so-called essential oils and health supplements. He’d never liked that latter smell.
He found the three boxes of VHS cassettes at last and began to frantically rummage through them. It wasn’t the cassettes themselves he was looking for. It was one of the plastic cases. The one in which he’d hidden the Polaroid photo.
Half of them were missing a cover, or had a paper cover drawn and written on by a young Jack, who had been bored on one or two occasions and decided that a simple name tag wasn’t enough for these movies.
As he looked through the titles, he could almost see the films play out. Here was Terminator 2, Groundhog Day, Star Wars, and quite a few that had no place associating with those sorts of titles. He had watched them all, again and again, wearing out the tapes through endless repetition and rewinding. Some of them were older flicks that had once belonged to Jack’s dad or his uncle—he couldn’t remember who now. Assorted Hitchcock, most of the older Bonds, and far too many Westerns.
But the tape—the tape of Highlander, with a plastic case and with its cover still intact—wasn’t there.
Jack breathed a sigh of relief, then hesitated. If it wasn’t with the rest of the movies, where had it ended up? Destroyed, he hoped, though he’d always been afraid of what might happen if it was destroyed.
Wherever it was, it wasn’t in these boxes. Or. . .
‘Maybe you’re hiding in one of the other boxes,’ Jack muttered. He wanted to go to sleep, knew that he would not get enough of it as is. But he had to be sure before the others got a chance to look through everything and find it. If he went to sleep now and one of them found the Polaroid while he was away at work. . . Hell, he didn’t know what would happen if they looked at it. Maybe it was only him that it worked on.
Or maybe he had only dreamt the whole thing, as he’d spent half his life convincing himself that he had. Was there even a Polaroid?
Jack felt a little queasy. His head spun. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, then cursed, and reached for the other boxes.
The memories were back now, as strong as if he hadn’t forgotten them in the first place. He remembered first finding the Polaroid while rooting through other, much older boxes in the attic of his childhood home.
It had been black and white, grainy, and decades old, and the boy in the picture had only looked like a grey smudge—to begin with.
Jack had been younger than Junior then, no more than nine or ten. And he had found the photo, turned face-down beneath a hidden panel at the bottom of an old chest with broken hinges, and stared at it for a minute, trying to make out the picture in the dark.
And then, he had gone downstairs to get a flashlight, and he had ended up forgetting all about the damned thing. But the boy in the Polaroid had not forgotten about him.
A few days later, Jack had gone up there again and even thought to bring a light. The picture had been where he’d left it, on the floor in front of the chest. But it had changed.
As he held it under his light, he had been able to make out the lake outside the house and the old tree, which had been much smaller when the picture was taken. . . and the boy.
Young Jack had thought the clarity of the picture was just due to the added light. After all, it was still grainy and blurry, the boy’s face indistinguishable.
But he had begun to take shape.
That night, Jack had been haunted by feverish nightmares. He had woken up soaked in sweat and urine—the first time he had wet his bed in years.
If his mother’s admonition, ‘I thought you were a big boy, Jackie. Do you need to start wearing diapers again?’ hadn’t been embarrassing enough, Jack had just about thought he would die when she hung the sheets to air in the front yard, in plain view for all their neighbours to see. More than half of them were families with kids who had gone to school with Jack. In his mind, it had been as bad as if he’d pissed himself in class.
Unable to sink into the ground, he’d retreated into the attic once again. This time, he’d stayed up there for half an hour before remembering the Polaroid, and then an inexplainable instinct had driven him to dig it back out of the chest and look at it.
Even in the darkness, the boy had been much more distinct than he had been the day before. He now stood out against the rest of the picture, which remained smudgy—a sharp, high-contrast anomaly. The words ‘like a bad Photoshop’ came to that distant part of Jack’s brain that was the adult, his tether to the present day.
Even in the dark, Jack had now been able to see the boy’s face. It was Jack’s face—his own features, unmistakable despite being black and grey and a mirrored version of how he was used to seeing them—the dark eyes fixed on Jack’s.
The boy had been smiling. Smiling, because he was becoming Jack. He was transforming into a perfect replica of Jack. And when the metamorphosis was done—What then? What would happen to the real Jack?
A wave of nausea washed away the memories, and the apartment once again became reality. Jack stared down at the object in his hands. It was Highlander.
The VHS case had somehow been separated from its peers and wedged beneath some old torn canvases. Now, hands trembling, he slipped two fingers inside the cover under its protective plastic sheeting. After only a moment’s fumbling, he found the Polaroid.
He’d never expected not to find it.
He slipped it out. It was folded. He thought about putting it back without glancing at it—or better yet, burning it. But he had to see.
His vision spinning and prickling, he unfolded the Polaroid and stared at the boy—the other Jack, whom he had trapped inside the picture all those years ago.
But the boy had changed. Perhaps the change had started the moment that these old boxes came into the apartment; perhaps it had only begun when Jack himself had entered its presence, or when he’d first started to remember.
The boy in the picture was no longer a nine-year-old Jack. He was taller, in his early teens—Jackie’s age. He even looked like Jackie Jr. For one sickening, shameful moment, it led him to believe that maybe it was Jackie, and he felt a flutter of relief.
But it wasn’t Jackie, and after that first moment of pure selfishness, Jack was glad that he’d been mistaken. He loved that kid more than anything.
The boy in the picture met Jack’s gaze, his expression calm. He wore an unfortunate mullet, identical to the one Jack had thought was so cool back in. . . what year could it have been?
Before his eyes, the boy continued to change. The picture itself remained perfectly still, a snapshot of some long-ago time at the lake, but the boy managed to change without Jack seeing it, always transforming in a different spot from where his eyes were focusing.
The transformation was much faster than it had been in his childhood. The boy grew taller, skinnier, his hair shortening while a ratty stubble began to appear on his upper lip. Only his clothes remained the same; they were from some time far before Jack had ever found the Polaroid. Where they had once been a size too large, they soon became several sizes too small.
Jack was transfixed by the situation, frozen by his terror. Frantically, he tried to remember how he had stopped the boy the first time. Something had happened, but what? All his memories went hazy right after that first discovery.
The boy was in his early twenties now. He had that scar across the right eyebrow, the one created by Mike’s high school ring when they had gotten into a brawl.
He was getting close, and still, Jack could not recall beyond the moment when he’d first noticed the boy’s transformation some twenty-five ago.
Not knowing what else to do, he pulled out his lighter—he hadn’t smoked for two years now, but he’d never lost the habit of carrying it around.
He didn’t know what would happen if he burned the picture. Something bad maybe, but what other choice did he have? The boy—the man—in the Polaroid meant to possess him, meant to steal his body and his life, just like he. . . just as he had tried before. But Jack had stopped him. If he could only remember how.
He clicked the lighter twice—three times—before the little flame appeared. At least it wasn’t out of gas. He didn’t care what happened when he burned it, so long as he stopped the Polaroid-Jack. For Jackie’s sake And Rose’s. God, what would Rose say if this creature suddenly took his place? Would she even notice? How well could the Polaroid-thing mimic you? How many memories would it steal?
He didn’t care to find out. He held the flame up to the corner of the picture. It resisted the fire, refusing to burn.
‘Come on,’ he whispered, ‘please.’
Finally, wisps of grey smoke began to rise from the photograph. Slowly, the fire spread, swallowing more and more of the picture.
Jack looked at his doppelganger. He was in his mid-thirties now. Jack’s age. An expression like fear had come over his face. Fear and. . . excitement. It mirrored Jack’s own mindset.
The cards were on the table now. Win or lose, it was out of their hands.
He closed his eyes and tried to think of Jackie Jr. Instead, another image appeared upon his eyelids. The memory, in full this time.
He had watched the boy in the picture change. He had panicked, had tried to run outside, tried to escape its circle of influence. He had. . . He had been too late. Too unprepared. He’d tried to run, but it was no longer a question of distance. The metamorphosis was in motion, the pact was sealed, and never mind that he’d never agreed to it.
He’d only made it halfway across the street.
Jack opened his eyes. He smelled smoke. Not just picture-smoke now, but singed flesh. His flesh.
He looked down at his hands and saw that they were turning ashen, crumbling from the fingertips down, the still-burning Polaroid drifting to the ground in slow motion. It was surprisingly painless.
‘Please,’ he told Jack—the real Jack, the boy that he had trapped inside his Polaroid prison for two and a half decades. ‘Please.’
He tried to say more but found he couldn’t. He stared down the corridor, at Jackie’s door. Whether he was the original Jack or not, Jackie was his son, and he loved the kid more than anything. This was his family and his apartment. His life! He had had it more than twice as long as the other Jack had, and what did it matter if that one had had it first?
It wasn’t fair.
Tears formed in his eyes, the only part of him that hadn’t started to disintegrate. The Polaroid had almost burned completely.
He looked up at the other Jack—the ‘real’ Jack. There was so much he wanted to say and do.
The ash fell onto the entry mat. It would probably never fully come out no matter how thoroughly it was vacuumed, but at least it only looked like dust and dirt.
A door opened at the end of the hallway, startling Jack. He stared at it.
A woman came out. Rose. She was pretty.
‘Are you still up?’ she asked. ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Sorry,’ he said, his voice hoarse. He hadn’t used it in a long time. He cleared his throat. ‘I was just. . . looking at some old photos.’