This year's Halloween story. Enjoy! (c) Tracy Dunham, 2015
The Red Jacket
The photo wasn’t doing what she wanted it to do. Lily
punched the delete button and sighing, tried to frame the scene with her hands.
She didn’t know why it wasn’t working. She should have knocked out this
assignment hours ago. Freelancing didn’t pay unless you got the shot the client
wanted, and so far, she was earning zilch. Nada. Nothing.
The damned trees insisted on swaying too much, the sun
played peek-a-boo with the clouds, scuttling all her F stops, and any sense of
scale appeared to be an impossible goal.
The firm, an agricultural magazine its client, wanted pastoral, calm,
and lush for its magazine cover. All
Lily was getting was flat, boring, and overshot. Grunting with disgust, she flung her camera
in front of her, shut her eyes, and pressed the button. Rapid fire clicks,
hundreds of them, responded as she twirled slowly in the middle of the field
she’d chosen, praying that at least one of these random shots would be
sufficient to earn a paycheck.
The light left her, and as she packed up to head back to her
tiny cottage, she glimpsed a flash of red among the browns and sepias of the
tree trunks in the nearby forest. Perhaps it was just a stray red leaf,
floating to the ground that had caught her eye.
Something like a spot of red could help her picture pop, but she didn’t
have enough light to get any more shots.
She drove home, far enough from the field that she couldn’t hear the
hunters going after ducks as if they were the enemy. She hated the sound of gunfire. It reminded her too much of her former career
as a stringer for the AP in all the wars she could find.
Parking her old Jeep beside her ramshackle house, she
dragged her bag with all her photo equipment into the studio in the
backyard. Even though she had a headache
from hunger and probably, disappointment, she flicked on the overhead lamp and
pulled out her cameras. One by one, she flashed through the pictures on the
screens, discarding them even more quickly.
Then she saw it. The very last shot. It possessed that
special something she’d been searching for, and without even knowing it, she’d
lucked into her money shot. Uploading it onto her computer, she worried about
what she needed to fix in order to sell it, when she saw that flash of red. The
same brief splotch of color she’d seen just before she packed up to go. Too big
and colorful to be anything in nature, she decided the red was a piece of
clothing. But why hadn’t it been in the
earlier pictures? And where was its owner? Surely the hunters who’d been
blasting away in the distance hadn’t left it.
She printed off a copy to keep in the house. Maybe she’d
take a look later, after she’d eaten and had some rest. The magazine was closed
for the day, anyway, but she shot off an attachment of the picture to the
editor who’d hired her, asking if this would work for the cover. Certain of her success, she carried the print
out to her house, and setting it on the kitchen counter, studied her fridge for
an idea for dinner.
She and food were on a first name basis most of the time,
but tonight she couldn’t think of anything tempting to eat. Not that there was
much to choose from. In fact, starvation was around the corner if she didn’t
get paid by someone very soon. Ignoring the ache that bit at her stomach, Lily
fished out a loaf of ancient bread and popped a couple of pieces in the
toaster. She’d lived on less food when on assignments in war zones. She’d get
by. Adding a cup of tea, she carried the toast and tea over to the worn sofa
and coffee table that faced the small picture window.
She studied her view. The back yard was filled with plants
she collected in her travels for assignments, back when she was in demand and
making enough money to pay cash for this place. Whenever she felt as if she
were wasting her time on her so-called career, she’d spend hours in her garden,
photographing plant, and in the process, remembering how her camera had
captured man’s inhumanity to man in each place she’d taken a speciman. Once upon a time, she’d believed her photos
of the horrors of war could work for good, hastening to end a conflict that
never should have been. When she’d
realized that it seemed death had dogged her all her life, she gave up.
Planting reminders of the dead and dying had once given her hope that beauty
could rise of ashes. That had been a stupid idea, she learned the hard way. So
she gave up and kept the reminders fertilized and pruned, so she’d never
She never had. Love didn’t exist in the black world of
violence and senseless death, so she did without love. Just as she could forego food, she didn’t
need human affection. Or so she’d thought, back when she was young and life
seemed so unfair yet manageable.
Now she wasn’t at all sure she’d taken the right path. None
of her best work had done anyone any good, least of all her. Now she was just
another cheap hire for third tier magazines. Her choice. Now, it was making her
art fit into commercial boxes that sapped her soul and gave her fits. Which,
she realized, was why her bank account was always empty these days. She just
Sipping her tea and playing with toast crumbs, Lily stared
at the printout and tried to decide if she wanted to investigate that sudden
splotch of red further. Anything was better than ruminating on her dark past
and bleak future. If the object was some
bit of flotsam left by a hiker, did she really care enough to find it? And if
it had been dropped by someone, why hadn’t she seen it in her first hundred
photos? Still, who was she to look a gift horse in the mouth? That bit of red
was just the touch her composition had needed. She couldn’t wait to get an
approval tomorrow from the editor, and her check.
That night, Lily dreamed of a floating forest, where trees
switched places with one another, and water shifted from the sky to the ground,
and a little girl cried behind a maple tree laden with gold and crimson
leaves. She couldn’t find the child in
her dream to help her because the tree moved every time she got close, and she awoke exhausted. Chalking it up to not
having properly eaten the day before, she slugged down some stale cereal and
another cup of tea before turning on her computer.
The email from the magazine editor awaited her. Yes, she
liked it, but felt it needed to be taken from another angle. Blah, blah, blah,
and could Lily get her another picture by this afternoon, early?
The cereal turned somersaults in Lily’s stomach. She’d already checked the weather, and clouds
filled the sky and were expected to hang in there for another day or so. “Damnation and hellfire,” Lily cursed,
flipping back all the curtains. She didn’t have a hoot in hell of a chance of
getting the same great light as she had yesterday. Didn’t the idiot editor know
that she’d have to wait until it cleared up?
She had to try. Maybe she could wait out the cloud cover. A
few seconds here and there of sun, and she’d be set. Thinking on a positive
note, Lily hauled herself and her gear back out. She was now in the category of hired help
with equipment. Not an artist, just a person who could do a passable job.
Where and when had she lost her panache? Her flair for the
unexpected? Her pride, if the truth be told, in her art. If she was going to be
honest, and she figured it was about time she was, she’d lost her edge in the
many wars she’d covered for the big magazines. Photographing dead and maimed,
sorrow and misery, had sucked the life out of her art, and her. Both were
barely hanging in there, and she hated it.
Maybe if she’d had a family, a husband and children, she’d
have been able to shed the ugliness her art had recorded. Simple joys had once
been basic to her life and creativity. A newly bloomed mum, an inch worm
dangling from a rose leaf. Even her garden shots were marred now, blight on a
bush, a row of wilted tulips, as if the camera was afraid to record anything
pretty or happy. Or she was. Because she knew exactly how much ugliness existed
in the world, and it was a limitless supply. She never felt clean anymore, no
matter how much she scrubbed her skin and stood under a scalding shower. How
could her art express anything but what she felt? When had she chosen death as
art and why? What a stupid girl she’d been, back when she believed she was
capable of handling any shit life threw at her.
Without realizing she’d been crying, she parked the Jeep
where she’d stopped yesterday, and dragged herself and her gear from its rear
seat. Trudging back to the edge of the
pond, she turned in a slow circle, trying to find an angle the editor would
like. She had no idea what she wanted, and it didn’t really matter for the cover
of this minor publication. The woman just wanted to jerk Lily’s chain, because
Dragging herself to the edge of the copse, Lily, looked back
where she’d stood yesterday, and pulled her camera to her eye. The whirr and
click of the lens working as she pressed the button was the only sound.
Strange, Lily thought. There should have been geese honking, shotgun echos,
wind rustling leaves at this time of the year. She was sure there had been
yesterday. Turning to check out the forested area, she didn’t see so much as a
single leaf flutter to the ground.
But she did see the red object that had appeared in the last
shot of the day. A few feet in front of her, it was draped over a tree stump,
as if someone had planned to retrieve it. Without thinking about what she was
doing, Lily walked to the stump and picked up the anorak. A woman’s jacket, with pockets and a
drawstring waist, a hood, and nary a smudge of dirt or spot. The thing could have been brand new. After
checking out the pockets and finding them empty, Lily held it up to her torso.
The size seemed about right, though a bit big. Slipping it
on, she gave a little twirl, amazed how it lifted her mood. She could certainly
use a new jacket, and even if this one was too bright, she’d wear it. Whoever left it in the woods hadn’t returned
in the past twenty-four hours, so she figured it was finders-keepers at this
point. Or was it?
The jacket warmed her in a way her sweatshirt hadn’t.
Deciding it was an omen, Lily traipsed deeper into the woods, determined to get
a few more shots and call it a day, clouds and the editor’s demands
notwithstanding. Just as she raised her Nikon to her eye, she was struck by a
dizziness that sent her crashing to her knees, camera dropped, both hands
pressed to the forest floor for purchase.
She’d never fainted before, not once. Head swirling, she tried to be rational about
what had just happened. She hadn’t had much to eat yesterday, of course she was
light-headed. She’d been sleeping poorly, taunted by worries over which she had
no control. Despite her logic, her stomach roiled, and for a second time, she
felt herself falling, this time to her side, her cheek pressed against pine
needles and musty, dead leaves. Forcing herself to breathe, she wondered if she
was having a heart attack. Every inch of her ached as if she’d been hammered
with baseball bats, and her head throbbed with migraine-like pain.
“No,” she whispered, her throat aching, “I won’t die here.”
Despite her declaration, she wasn’t so sure she wasn’t passing away. Shouldn’t
she be seeing her past flash before her? Look into a bright light or the
smiling faces of welcoming dead relatives?
The trees surrounding her swirled like a merry-go-round and
staring at them was the wrong thing to do. Shutting her eyes, Lily refused to
give up, no matter what the symptoms seemed to be. She would not go gently into Dylan Thomas’ good
Then, just as quickly as she’d been stricken, Lily felt all
the pain and dizziness stop. Just like that. Amazed, she uncurled her fists
from her chest and checked her hands. They seemed to be solid. Glancing down, she was still in the red
jacket, and she could wiggle her feet.
In fact, there was no lingering pain, no disorientation at all. Rolling to her knees, she pushed herself upright
and glanced down to retrieve her Nikon.
The only problem was, there was no camera, no forest, no
cloudy October sky. Her boots were
standing on the brick path in her back garden, behind her little house, and
rose bushes and jasmine bloomed in sunny glory all around her. Nary one of her foreign plants lined the
path. She couldn’t be home, she hadn’t
driven anywhere after getting dizzy, so was this some kind of crazy cosmic
joke? Heaven was her house, but not?
“Hey, hon, where’re the band aids? Fleur has a boo-boo.” A smiling man, dark
hair, bright blue eyes, and a sheepish grin, poked his head from the upstairs
bathroom window. “No emergency, no arterial blood. A nasty splinter, which I removed with a
minimum of tears, thank you very much. I think I’ve got it covered.”
He must have registered the alarm on her face as concern for
the unknown Fleur. “Uh, band aids are
under the sink. Blue box.” She didn’t
know how she pulled that one out of her mind, like some magician’s rabbit and
the classic black top hat.
He shouted down a distant “Got it.”
Who the hell was Fleur? And who was he? Maybe if she stayed
in the rose garden long enough, she’d get back to the woods where she’d been
stricken ill. Before she could run for
the garden gate, she stopped cold. It wasn’t there. Her rickety little wooden
picket fence had been replaced by a brick wall, covered with climbing roses.
Covering her face with her hands, Lily sucked in deep breaths and tried to
analyze the panic threatening to take her down for the third and final time.
She was drowning in different-ness. None of this made sense, and she didn’t know
how it had happened.
“Here’s mommy. I told you she’d be back in a few
minutes. Tell mommy how brave you
were.” The man with blue eyes wiggled
through the small back door, holding a little girl old enough to walk on her
own, but who was clinging to him with weepy, identical blue eyes.
“Who are you?” Lily
didn’t have time to play games. The longer she was stuck in this fantasy, the
longer it would take her to return to her real time. “Look, I know this is an illusion. What do I
have to do to get out of it?”
Setting the little girl, about four years old Lily guessed,
down, the man hurried to where Lily was backing up towards the brick wall.
“Sweetie, what’s the matter?
Are you ill?” Reaching for her, he hesitated as Lily lifted her clenched
fists and assumed a fighting stance.
“I’ve been a black belt for years now, don’t come an inch
“Black belt? What is this, a joke? You hate violence.” Still, he hung back as if he believed her.
Good thing he did believe her. She’d never taken a defensive
class in her life. “Just tell me how I
get out of here. I have a life waiting
“Lily, honey, you’re scaring Fleur. Let me fix you a cup of hot tea.”
“Daddy, why is mommy crazy?” whined the little blue-eyed
girl who blended her daddy’s gorgeous eyes with flaxen hair and delicate skin
the color of pink satin.
“Good question, Fleur.
Maybe mommy can tell us why she’s pretending to be a fruitcake.”
“I hate fruitcake,” Fleur mumbled through the thumb she’d
stuck in her mouth.
“Oh great, now she’s thumb-sucking again.” The man rolled
his eyes and addressing Fleur, gently removed her hand from her mouth. “You’re
a big girl, Fleur sweetie, you don’t need to suck your thumb. Remember, we
threw away your pacifier into the river because you’re a big girl now?”
“Being a big girl ain’t what it’s cracked up to be,”
muttered Lily. “All I want is out. Just tell me how to get back to my real place
and time.” Lily addressed the man,
ignoring the big tears slipping down the little girl’s face. “Which definitely
isn’t here. I don’t have any idea who you are and why you’re in my house.”
“Lily, it’s me, Aaron, it’s okay, I’ll get you some
help. But I swear to God, if you’re
making this crazy act up, I will kill you.
I mean it. Now make up your mind, are you okay or do I need to call an
Aaron. The name slid into her brain and visited several
rooms before it found the correct one.
“Aaron Levine?” She couldn’t believe it.
The boy she’d loved disappeared in a boating accident when he was seventeen and
she sixteen. She’d spent years mourning
what could have been, the worst kind of grief.
“Good, we’re getting somewhere. Now tell me, Lily, did you
drink anything odd? You know you always try something funky at the Tea Leaf
when you go to town. Or did you leave a cup
of tea unguarded when you went to the restroom? Could someone have slipped you
some drugs in it?” Still holding the
little girl behind him, Aaron drew closer to Lily. “Think honey, this is
important. You’re not right, and my bet is, it’s pharmacological. You sound like a teenager tripping on a date
Could he be right? Was she someone else, someone who lived a
totally different life than the one she’d had just this morning? Why did she
remember all the plants in her garden, every trip abroad where they’d been
collected, all the wars she’d covered for top newspapers and magazines, all the
times all she’d wanted was to hole up in her little house and never leave
again? There could be an answer, but did
she really want to hear it?
Fingering the bottom edge of the red jacket to assure
herself it was real, Lily glanced into big blue eyes of the little girl,
staring at her from behind Aaron’s jeans.
One eyebrow crooked over her left eye in a definite triangle, just as
one did on Lily’s face. No, it wasn’t
possible. She’d remember if she’d had a
child. A mother would never forget someone like Fleur, with her thumb in her
rosebud mouth and tear-filled eyes swimming with fear such as she’d never known
“Show me your boo-boo, Fleur.” Fleur, such an old-fashioned name. Kneeling before Aaron, Lily held out her
hands for the little girl. But Fleur was having none of it. Shaking her head, she used both arms to hold
onto Aaron’s right leg.
“Lily,” Aaron warned. “If you’re playing games, stop it.
You’re being cruel.”
Staring up at him, Lily felt her own eyes fill with
tears. “Who am I?”
With one hand on Fleur’s head, he reached for Lily with the
other, and quickly scooped her up against his chest. “You’re Lily Levine, you’re my wife and
Fleur’s mother, and you teach art to elementary kids at Lewis Elementary. You
went into town to buy groceries early this morning, and you’re safe now, you’re
home. Back where you belong.”
Being held against his chest felt right. Nodding slightly, Lily took a good look
around the garden. She liked the unruly, riotious colors of this garden better
than the horrid memories each plant represented in her old one. Why had she
planted something from each war-torn country? To remind her of the horrors
she’d recorded with her camera?
“I have a question.”
She mumbled into his chest. “Is
this jacket mine?”
She felt the chuckle against her cheek. “No, honey, it’s
mine. You steal it whenever you can get your hands on it. Why don’t you just
buy one for yourself?”
How could any of this be happening? “Did you lose it? Or put it down in the woods? And did you know
I would find it?”
“ Whoa, darlin’, what’s so important about the jacket?” Stroking her back, he calmed her as one did a
“Nothing,” she mumbled. “But can I keep it?”
“Anything you want, sweetheart. Anything at all, if it means
you’re okay. Are you? Okay?”
“I think so.”
Nothing in her old life called to her but her bad memories.
Memories of war and disappointment.
Memories of a life on the edge of falling off a cliff.
And a memory she’d forgotten, of a boy she’d loved with all
her heart and a life that could have been.
The hunters hurried to what they thought was a deer they’d
bagged. Sure, they’d jumped the gun on deer season, but not by much. The woman’s sprawled body sent them
“Damn, Henry, we’re in deep now. How the hell did this
happen? I swear, I thought she was a buck.”
“Maybe she’s alive?” Henry knelt beside the woman and felt
for the vein in her neck.
“Christ, no. What’re we gonna do?”
“We should call for an ambulance, is what we should do. You
willing to take the fall for this?”
“Shit, no. I’m a family man, I got kids to feed.”
“Me too, you dumb ass.” Bobby looked as if he was going to
Henry grabbed him and dragged him away from the body. “We got to make sure we pick up all our
shells. Then we get the hell out of here and never talk about today. Not ever,
you hear me? We never hunted this forest.”
“I don’t like it. It’s not right.”
Henry nodded. “I hear ya.
But fuck, Bobby, we gotta think about our families.Won’t take long for
the weather and the critters to take care of her. Leave her be.”
“I don’t like it,” Bobby repeated.
Henry hitched his shotgun over his shoulder and turned his
back. “Don’t have to. We got to take care of our own selves. We can’t go to
prison over some stupid bitch.”
“I guess so.” Bobby glared at Lily, her hair spilled over
her face, one hand clutching a bunch of dead leaves, one last time. “Stupid
bitch. All her own fault.”
“Yeah, that’s right. All her fault.”