Once again, I return to flash fiction. Been a while.
I’ve missed it.
The opening sentence for this one, “I had never felt as out of place as I did while posing for that family portrait,” came from Saara Kunnaala, who has most likely forgotten about the whole thing, given that she suggested it back in May, 2014.
I had never felt as out of place as I did while posing for that Family portrait. Dressed up in my crisp white shirt, wearing a sky blue tie, that fake smile on my face. The final thing I had to do. They suspected nothing.
I was front and center, being among the youngest and shortest. The children weren’t included, of course; they were back in the dormitory. The lights were hot. My eyes hurt from the constant squinting. I felt flabby and out of shape. Guilt and anticipation churned inside me. My bowels felt liquid. My back was wet with perspiration, but it wouldn’t show for the picture. The rain still hammered the roof, somewhere in the darkness above the rafters.
Father was directly behind me. I could feel his presence. He put a warm hand on my shoulder as the photographer walked out from behind the camera to adjust the lights, left it there. He leaned over, his lips an inch from my ear.
“Are you all right, son?”
“You seem tense.” His bony fingers kneaded my trapezius. He found the knots.
“It’s the lights.”
“They are bright,” he agreed. His breath was bad today, coffee and cigarettes on halitosis.
“Just another couple of minutes,” the photographer announced, moving to another light. “Sorry about this, sir. It’s a big group.”
“Quite all right, young lady,” Father called out. “Take your time.” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “Can you believe this bitch? Taking forever. You hire them, they think they own you.”
“Yes, Father.” Safe words for any occasion.
The photographer had driven up to the compound three hours earlier. Father had her set up in the barn, and insisted that everybody be there, ready when she arrived. All dressed the same, shirts and ties, black dress pants, men and women all with the same short haircut. Everybody looking the same, except Father, with his long golden locks falling to his shoulders. A lion’s mane. His best feature. He wore all black, of course, the minister’s collar clearly visible below his long, neatly combed beard.
The photographer, clearly weirded out by the scene, had suggested that she could set up the lights and the backdrop first, she’d call us when she was done.
Father had just stared at her with that patient smile on his lips.
“Or I guess you can get lined up and just, uh. Wait like that,” the photographer said after a long moment.
“Why don’t we do that,” Father replied.
So we’d lined up in three rows, all eighty of us. The tallest and oldest in the back. The shortest and youngest up front. In the center of the middle row, surrounded by his all his children, Father. For almost three hours now. Nobody fidgeted.
Three hours. A stroke of luck. A blessing.
“This will be a good picture,” Father decided. He now had both hands on my shoulders. It felt good, him working on the knots. He was good with his hands. “Remember the last one?” He chuckled.
I did remember. Seven years ago. When I was still just a boy. It had been much like this, except we took it outdoors, in the field outside the main building. It hadn’t taken anywhere near this long, but then that was a sunny day. I remembered being so proud I got to be in the picture, even though I wasn’t an adult yet. Father’s favorite, all my life.
“I think there’s a leak,” Father said.
I felt dizzy.
“Listen. Can you hear it?”
I held my breath. I couldn’t hear anything.
“Drip, drip,” he said. “In the corner behind us, I think. We should get that fixed.”
“I’ll take care of that, Father.” The lie made my mouth dry.
“You’re a good boy,” he said.
“All right,” the photographer said. “I think we’re ready.”
She dug into a coat pocket and took out her wallet. She flipped it open for us.
“Police,” she said. “Everybody remain where you are.”
I hadn’t known.
Suddenly, there were strangers in the barn. They wore raincoats with large yellow letters on them. They had guns.
I couldn’t breathe. The hands on my shoulders were hard.
“How dare you? What is the meaning of this?” Father’s voice was loud and clear. I felt its fury.
“Sir, you’re under arrest.”
“Ridiculous. On what charges?”
“You have the right to remain silent.” The photographer who was not a photographer continued talking. I couldn’t listen to her.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m sorry, Father, I’m sorry.”
“Fuck,” the photographer said sharply. “Kid, get out of there.”
I didn’t move. I felt Father’s hands around my neck, rattlesnake quick. My throat closed up.
I heard shouting. I only heard his words.
“What did you do?”
“I’m sorry,” I croaked. My eyes were wet. I couldn’t see anything. I blinked away tears. “I had to. I couldn’t.”
His mouth was in my ear.
“What did you do, you filthy traitor piece of shit?”
“They’ve been working,” I said, my voice a strained whisper. “While we were in here. They’ll have the children. They’ll have everything.”
He growled. Teeth sank into my earlobe. Sharp pain blossomed. I opened my mouth, but I didn’t have the air to scream.
“Fucking Judas,” he spat, and showed me away. I drew a deep, ragged breath. It hurt. It tasted sweet.
I rolled on my back. Somebody’s hands were under my arms, dragging me away from Father. The photographer. “Stay down, stay down,” she kept saying.
I saw Father go down under an avalanche of men. He stared at me, eyes burning. My blood on his lips. For the first time, he looked weak and old and scared.
The Family finally reacted, screaming outrage and fear. They surged, fists up, driven by glorious, righteous rage. Thunder boomed. Red blood on white shirts.
“God sees you,” Father screamed over the roar. “You’ll burn in Hell.”
I laughed. The words came easy now. “Yes, Father.”
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