Photo inspired story written for Waterfront Writers


By Sandra R. Campbell

In January 1985, my mother died in a car accident. Nobody’s fault, just an accident. I think that’s part of the reason my father couldn’t handle it – couldn’t handle me. There was no one to blame for her death.

Two horrible weeks later my father crept through my doorway with a glass of wine in his hand to tell me I was no longer welcome. “Kate, you’re going to stay with Uncle Jay for a while.” His speech was slow and a little slurred.

A minute or two passed while I recovered from a sudden burst of fear, and then I babbled every question I had. “Why? When? How long? What do I need to pack?”

My father answered only one question before he turned and disappeared into the dark hall. “Pack everything.”

The next day we drove in silence to my uncle’s house in upstate New York. The entire contents of my bedroom crammed into the back of my father’s Jeep Cherokee. I can’t say I minded too much. My uncle Jay was a pro-football player – a safety with the Buffalo Bills. He had a giant house I could get lost in, and a live-in maid to keep an eye on me, because I’m certain Uncle Jay would like an extra pair of eyes watching out for me. The best part was I didn’t have my sad-faced father lurking in shadowed doorways watching me when he thought I couldn’t see.

Truth is, at sixteen I looked a whole lot like my mother when they met in high school; pale skin, black hair, almond-shaped, stone-colored eyes. And just like her, I had the ability to make a color photo look black and white, if the lighting was right. The eyes though, that’s what killed my father. He hadn’t looked me in the face since the day of her funeral. Now he wouldn’t have to look at me at all.

Living with my rich and famous uncle turned out exactly as I expected. By April, I’d mastered the art of fake smiles, and for the most part, adjusted to my new celebrity lifestyle. Thanks to Uncle Jay, my abundance of superficial friends was never in short supply. He insisted I have people over almost every night; to study, eat pizza, watch a movie, or swim in the indoor pool. I had a feeling he didn’t want to leave me alone for any length of time. Avoidance was Uncle Jay’s way of dealing with his older sister’s death. It wasn’t mine though. I wanted to talk about my mother, visit her grave, speak to her, but she was buried back home in our small town cemetery, which happened to be more than a four hour drive from Buffalo. No chance in hell Uncle Jay would lend me his Porsche to take that trip.

Surrounded by friends I didn’t really want or need, and a new boyfriend, Luke, conveniently Bennett High’s all-star quarterback, I abandoned the memory of my late mother in order to fit in. However, at some point, I realized my fabricated happiness had turned into something more. I’d forgotten how nice it was to smile without twitching or aching. My laughs weren’t forced when Uncle Jay told me outlandish stories of his rookie year mishaps. Now his exaggerated tales brought pleasant tears to my eyes.

The night Luke presented his class ring and asked me to the senior prom, my heart pounded so hard I thought my ribs would crack – I really did want to go. But as quickly as happiness returned to my life, it was gone again. A few days later, my father appeared and every ounce of joy I had vanished.

Saturday, May 11th, just after nine in the morning, Luke showed up in his fully restored 50’s Ford truck and drove us out to Moosecup Lake for a day of sun, friends and fun. We had the windows down, And She Was, by the Talking Heads blared over the radio. Luke bobbed his head to the music, while his arm inched along the back of the shiny bench seat.

“So, what’s in the backpack?” Luke shouted over the music.

I tried not to smile when his thumb brushed the back of my neck, but couldn’t help the corners of my mouth from turning up. “I brought a book, beach towel, a bag of chips and a couple sodas.”

Luke’s fingers trailed the curve of my shoulder and then dipped under the collar of my shirt. “What about your bikini?”

“The water’s still too cold to swim.” I said, removing his wandering hand from my shoulder, and then entwining my fingers with his. Holding hands, hugs, and a few open-mouthed kisses, at the end of a date, was about as physical as Luke and I had gotten, and about as far as we were going to get.

We pulled onto the dirt road leading into the Moosecup Lake behind a van full of kids from school. Luke honked his horn and waved as we parked next to them. Four guys from the football team and their girlfriends piled out of the van carrying backpacks and small coolers. I could smell the beer on them as soon as I got out of the truck. This wasn’t the kind of fun I had envisioned when Luke invited to me to the lake. He and his friends hadn’t come to have fun, they’d come to party. So, the first chance I got, I slipped away with my backpack and started the two mile hike down the main trail to the Moosecup Lake Welcome Center and a payphone.

Uncle Jay made sure I had a roll of quarters with me every time I left the house. Usually I complained, they were heavy and weighed down my purse. But I was glad for it today. The first call rang busy, the second rang to infinity. The answering machine never picked up, and the stupid payphone kept eating the quarters it should have been returning. I tried the house two more times, but eventually gave up and called my uncle’s pager. I entered the number of the payphone so he could call me back. I’d also added the numbers 9-2-2. Our private code meaning it was important, but not an emergency. No need for him to panic, I wasn’t in any danger. I only needed a ride home.

Ten minutes slipped away without a return call and not another soul in sight. For a Welcome Center on a popular lake in the middle of spring, it was awful quiet. No park ranger, no volunteers, no visitors. I decided to suck it up and hit the trail back to Luke and his drunken posse.

When I reached the fork in the trail, my body tensed at the sound of loud punk music and obnoxious laughter. I’d been gone over an hour, and I bet they hadn’t even noticed. So, instead of heading to the Lake, I veered off the main trail to an eroded footpath with tricky rocks and fallen tree limbs. As soon as the noise faded I felt my shoulders relax. It was a splendid kind of calm, with a gentle breeze through the thick trees and the faint rustling of dry leaves skittering over the ground. I’d planned to take the detour for just a few minutes. But then I spotted the dilapidated cemetery, and tossed that plan out the window.

The overgrown and crumbling graveyard, and what looked to be the decayed remains of a grey-brick church, lay forgotten in the middle of the woods. It was the perfect setting. I could talk to my mother here. Careful not to get pricked by the sticker bushes, I spent the next half hour searching the broken and fallen headstones for the most legible epitaph. Most of the engravings were worn away from the elements.

I’d almost given up when I discovered a corner of a weathered stone sticking out from under a clump of vines. Shoving the knotted plants aside, I saw the partially dislodged marker, pushed over by the expanding tree trunk, and the word ‘Mother’ clearly etched in the headstone.

Slinging the backpack from my shoulder, I removed a Coke, popped the tab, and placed my backpack on the ground to use as a cushion. I settled in front of the stone, preparing to unburden everything to a substitute grave, when a twig snapped behind me.

“There you are.” A familiar voice I never expected to hear.

I jumped to my feet, spilling the Coke and turned to see my father – smiling.  I’d forgotten what his crooked little grin looked like. “Dad, what are you doing here? How did you find me?”

My dad’s smirk grew bigger, his front chipped tooth on full display. “Uncle Jay.  And he’s not going to be happy to hear about those boys drinking.”

I wasn’t sure how I felt about my father showing up. I thought I should be happy, but I couldn’t say if I was or wasn’t. I’d pretty much written him off the day he decided to ditch me, considered him as dead as my mother. Still, I couldn’t disappoint him. “Well that’s the reason I paged Uncle Jay, and also the reason why I’m here and not there.”

His eyes seemed to scan the woods behind me, and then stopped, widening on a spot just over my left shoulder. “You always were a good girl.”

I glanced back, but didn’t see anyone or anything. “Gosh Dad, you make it sound like that’s a bad thing.”

Swiping a shaky hand through his thinning hair, his eyes locked on mine. I watched his brown eyes fill with tears. “No not bad. I’m the one who hasn’t done right. Not by you, not by your mother. But I’ve come to make amends. Katherine, I’m sorry. I want you to come home. So, we can be a family again.”

I took a long swig from my Coke, and swallowed. “Is that an apology? A few months ago, you couldn’t even look at me. What changed?”

“Time is one reason and your mother’s the other. She visited me recently, in a way only the dead can. Now when I talk to her, she listens. She answers. And I have a pretty good feeling that’s why you’re here in this old cemetery. You want to talk to your mother, too?”

“Yeah, I guess it is.”

My father reached forward with open hands, but was still too far away to make contact. “Come with me, you can talk to her whenever you want. Your mother’s come home to us, she’s there to help us heal, help us move on.”

No more fake smiles, no more pretend boyfriends, or superficial friends. I could have my old life back. Make peace with what happened to my mother and move ahead; me and my dad together as a family. Sure, I’d miss Uncle Jay, he and I were just starting to understand each other. Then again, it’s not like I couldn’t come back and visit. My father may have lost his wife, but I could give him back his daughter.

I snatched my backpack off the ground, slung it over one shoulder, and then headed for the trail. “Okay, Dad.”

“Don’t you want to give me a hug?”

I turned around and saw my father standing scarecrow still, with his head down and arms stretched wide – waiting. He’d scare more than the crows standing like that. I wasn’t about to run into those arms. Something felt off…  Trust is a funny thing; once broken, it’s always a little broken.

“I’ve gotta run back and tell Luke I’m leaving.” With a jerk of my thumb I indicated the direction of the lake. “It’ll only take fifteen minutes. Do you want to come with me? Where’d you park the Jeep?”

My father took a couple awkward steps in my direction. His jerky, unnatural movements reminded me of a zombie flick. Creepy.

I darted around the gravestones to the footpath, and yelled back to him. “Meet me at the split in the trail.”

When I finally reached the lake, I’d shaken the uneasy feeling from the cemetery. It’d been silly for me to run away like that. My father showing up, out of blue, while I was alone in the middle of a scary old graveyard, so we could talk about my dead mother was strange, but that’s no reason to freak out. I let my over-active imagination get the better of me. Though, I had to admit most of the afternoon had played out like an episode of The Twilight Zone.

Before I stepped off the trail and out of the woods, I heard yelling. “Where the hell is Kate?” I had a very upset uncle on my hands. Funny, my father said Uncle Jay would be mad to hear about the boys drinking. He hadn’t said anything about my uncle being at the lake. Then again, Uncle Jay was probably the one who drove.

“Hey dude, back off. I can’t help it she ran off. I don’t have a leash on the bi…” Luke might have been a high school football stud, but he wasn’t very bright. Lucky for him, I reached them before he finished his drunken, smartass reply.

“I’m here!”

I thought for sure he’d reprimand me right then and there, but instead Uncle Jay’s anger seemed to evaporate. Crushing me to his chest, he kissed the top of my head and then blew out a heavy sigh.

“Are you okay?”

It took me a second to maneuver around his iron grip so that I could look up. “Yeah, all good, Uncle Jay.”

“Sorry I didn’t return your page right away. There was an emergency.” Uncle Jay was already steering me towards the gravel parking lot. Passing Luke, he jabbed a stiff finger into his scrawny arm. “Kid, you better find another date for the prom.”

“Is everything okay?”  I asked as we neared the parking lot.

Uncle Jay stopped. “No honey, it’s not.”

When I turned around, I knew something had gone very wrong. But for the life of me I couldn’t conceive of anything that would make him cry. Well, maybe there was one thing… “Does it have anything to do with my father?”

Knuckling the tears from his face, he squared his shoulders and took my hands in his. “Why would you ask that?”

“Cause he’s back on the trail waiting for me.” Tears were building behind my eyes, threatening to flood over my mascara-coated lashes. I’d always hated seeing a man cry.

My uncle’s narrowed eyes slowly grew wider. After a long moment of silence, I thought he’d lost the ability to speak, but then suddenly he dropped my hands and shouted. “That’s impossible!”

“Uncle Jay, he’s there. He said he came to take me home. He wants us to be a family again. I told him I’d go home. I thought you drove him here. You’re not mad are you, that I said I’d go?” I couldn’t stop the tears from trickling down my face.

“Of course I’m not mad that you’d want to go home with your father. The only problem is you can’t.” Uncle Jay swiped the tears from my cheek. The end of his finger came away smeared in black.

“Why can’t I? Maybe we should go talk to him. He’s waiting for me.” I was scanning the woods behind him. My father was out there. He was waiting. And I had to go.

“No, he isn’t.”

“Seriously, Uncle Jay, he is.” I pulled on his wrist, but his feet were cemented to the ground. “I’ll take you to him right now.”

Uncle Jay grabbed my shoulders and gave me a hard shake. “Kate, your father’s dead. He committed suicide early this morning.”

Wrenching free of my uncle’s grasp, I ran into the woods. I had to see for myself that my father wasn’t there. When I reached the fork in the main trail, I skidded to stop. I could barely believe my eyes. Standing two feet in front of me, in the center of the trail, was my father, slack-faced in his frozen, scarecrow stance, and beside him in the identical position, was my dead mother.

They were waiting to take me home.

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