I pulled the Mustang into Shyla’s driveway at 8 the next morning. She was at work; I’d driven by the Red Ball and confirmed it. I got out of the car and walked around the house to the backyard.
I hopped the fence as I’d done the night before and jiggled the back door’s doorknob. Locked. Not a problem. There was no deadbolt, just the knob lock, making getting in easy. I pushed the latch back with my pocketknife and pulled open the door.
Thirty seconds later, I was standing outside Charlie’s bedroom door, trying not to gag. She’d wedged a bath towel under the door, and maybe it helped her with the smell, but it didn’t help me. I finally decided screw it, and kicked the towel out of the way before opening the door.
Two minutes later, I finished vomiting. I flushed the toilet and rinsed out my mouth with Shyla’s Listerine. Splashed cold water on my face and took a deep breath. Breakfast had been a bad idea, as I had known it would be, but I had to eat.
I returned to the bedroom. Get this over. Get out of here. Get home. Take a scalding hot shower.
The frame was on the bed face-down. I picked it up. Turned it over. Charlie was still a rotting corpse. I turned it back over and removed the backing. To my relief, the picture didn’t smell any worse out of the frame. I tossed the frame on the bed and concentrated on the picture.
Glossy finish. The photo was warmer than the frame. That weird heat. Made my skin crawl, made me growl. No one to hear, so I didn’t worry about it. Pine Trees Studios stamped in light gray ink over and over on the back. They had taken my school pictures, too.
I flipped the picture over. Ignored the dead boy and concentrated on everything else. That clean sweater. Background was dark green. Mitchum Bay school colors were dark green and white. The school mascot was a tiger. He was named Grady. In the elementary and middle schools, Grady was a cub. The Tiger Cubs. In my school pics, there was a small cartoon tiger cub running with a football in the lower right-hand corner. In junior high and high school, the school pics got the official logo: a snarling tiger head.
In Charlie’s pic, the logo was a small white elephant. The elephant was balanced on one hind leg while the other was raised. It held an American flag in its trunk.
I knew the copies of Charlie’s picture had the tiger cub. Had this elephant been in the picture last night? I had been too shocked by the corpse to notice anything else, save his sweater. That was why I’d come back here today.
I had seen this elephant before.
A white elephant.
I dropped the photo.
“Son of a bitch,” I said.
= = = = = = = = = =
I go home for my hour-long lunch. I used to stay and hang out behind the truck stop, listening to the roar of the idling semis while I smoked one of the two cigarettes I allowed myself a day. Now I go home and sit on the couch and smell that smell.
And today, when I open the front door, I know something’s wrong. The smell is stronger. I thought the towel had been working.
I go to Charlie’s bedroom. The door is open. The towel is bunched up against the wall. Someone’s been here.
I wish that would get my pulse racing, but it doesn’t. I step into his room, and I see the picture’s been taken out of the frame, and that finally gets my pulse racing. His photo’s on the floor, face-down. I pick the frame up off the bed. I don’t want to pick up the photo, but I have to. I don’t want it to stay out of the frame.
I pick up the picture. I turn it over because I have to look, I have to see if Charlie’s the same. He is.
I put it back in the frame, hating that jaunty little running tiger in the corner. It’s too happy to be on a dead boy’s picture.