I loved old black-and-white photographs from the day my mother showed me the old photo albums of my grandparents.
These tiny images were like windows to a different time, a different world even. With fascination I marveled at the huge old farmhouse my family used to live in a century ago, and I laughed at my grandfather’s grumpy face on his first day of school.
As I grew older, I often found myself leafing through those old albums, taking in the memories they contained.
It was only natural that I used black-and-white photographs for an arts project at university. Our professor had thought it was a good idea to give us free rein over what we wanted to create, and so I decided on a collage of photographs.
For weeks I gathered any and all old photographs I could find. My favorite place to indulge in these treasure hunts was my city’s weekly flea market. The place was huge and more reminiscent of a fair than a yard sale.
I loved wandering from stall to stall and scanning all the things that were for sale. From the newest movies and games, over phones and clothes to obscure tools and forgotten family memorabilia, you could find almost anything there.
The stalls I came to stop at the most were those that sold old postcards and photographs. I didn’t care for the postcards, but I’d look through every single stack of old photographs to see if I’d be able to find something interesting.
One Sunday morning, I stumbled upon a very peculiar photograph that stood out among the rest the old man at the stall was selling. The caption on the back was as simple as could be.
Family in Black-and-White.
The backdrop of the photograph was an old farmhouse. In front of it, more than a dozen people had gathered, all standing there in a single line, next to one another, smiling brightly at the camera. Yet, as my eyes wandered from one to the other, I couldn’t help but find those smiles a bit overdrawn, almost comically happy. There was something strangely intriguing about this supposed family, and the vibe it gave off made me buy it.
I strolled the flea market for another hour, but I shouldn’t find anything else of interest.
The moment I arrived at home, I was quick to return to my work in progress. The enormous canvas was already half-filled with different photographs. My eyes wandered over them before I pinned my newest treasure to a point near the center. I put it right next to a photograph of an elderly couple and below that of a group of children playing out in the sun.
I took a step back and nodded to myself. That place there in the center was more than fitting, I decided.
For a moment I was about to continue working on the collage when I remembered I was supposed to meet up with a group of friends. So, after a quick lunch, I set out again.
When I returned it was already late evening, and I was more than tired. As I walked down the hallway of my small apartment, I stopped in front of the living room for a second. There at the back was the collage, I’d wanted to work on, but I spent all day hanging out with friends. I sighed as looked at it in the dim light of the hallway. As my eyes wandered from photograph to photograph, they came to rest on the newly added family in the center. As I stared at it from afar, I could’ve sworn I saw something. It was the smallest of movements, but it looked almost as if one of the people in it had… winked at me?
As an icy feeling washed over me, I hit the living room light switch. Quick steps led me over to it before I called myself an idiot and cursed at an imagination fueled by way too many horror movies.
“Just go to bed, you idiot,” I mumbled to myself.
Sunday went and came, and for the first time in a while I made some actual progress on the collage.
During the next week, however, there was no hope of working on it. Group projects and exam preparation already took out a sizeable chunk of my time, but there was also my new part-time job. What little free time I had left, I spent away in front of Netflix, catching up on the latest seasons of Snowpiercer.
It was only on Friday, my only weekday off work, that I could finally get back to it.
It was already late afternoon, and I could feel the toll the week had taken on me. So I prepared myself a strong, hot cup of began going through the stack of photographs I still wanted to add to the collage.
Once I’d found a few and I turned to the collage, a strange feeling washed over me. As I looked at it, I knew something about it was different, I just couldn’t put my finger on what it was.
At first I thought one of the pinned photograph might have fallen down, but no, they were all still there, right where they belonged. Before long, my eyes found their way to the strange family at the center. This really was one extensive family, I thought. My eyes wandered from person to person before they came to rest on the youngest member of the family procession. A little boy standing in front of the rest. His smile seemed oddly different from the rest. It wasn’t as comically overdrawn as that of the rest, it was almost forced.
My eyes wandered on to the photograph of the elderly couple next to it and then to the boys playing in the field. Yet, that strange feeling was back. As I stared at it, I couldn’t help but wonder if something was different about it. Three boys playing in a field, I thought. Had there always been… three?
“All right, stop it, Laurie, you’re acting silly,” I scolded myself. “Of course it’s always been three, it’s not like a photograph can change!”
I shook my head and laughed at my silly, overactive imagination.
After a deep sip of my coffee, I went back to sorting through the remaining photographs.
I spent most of Friday evening working on the collage and continued through all the way to Saturday afternoon. That’s when my friend Lizzie dragged me to some silly dorm party.
At first I wasn’t in the mood to party, but the moment we arrived, I had to admit that I needed to unwind a little. After a few drinks though, it wasn’t just about unwinding anymore, instead it was about having a blast.
We stayed at the dorm part for a while before Lizzie and I made our way into the city and went barhopping. We hit one bar, then another, and when I was on my way home, it was already early in the morning.
When I woke up the next day, I felt terrible. Cursing at Lizzie, I lay in bed for almost another hour.
The moment the world had stopped spinning, I got up to prepare myself some coffee. As I made my way down the hallway, I stopped for a moment.
Something scratched at the back of my mind, the hint of a memory. I saw myself throwing open the front door to my apartment and almost crashing to the floor as I entered. As I stumbled down the hallway, I turned and looked at the… collage. There was a single thought, a single idea.
“Where the hell are all the people?”
For a moment I was confused, almost scared. Shit, had someone broken in and destroyed… no, they were all still there. As I stumbled toward it, I could see the smiling faces right away. No, not smiling, grinning faces, I thought. And for the first time since I’d bought the photograph, it wasn’t intriguing anymore. It was unnerving.
I reached out my hand and unpinned the photograph. For a few seconds I studied it before I cursed and threw it to the floor. First, coffee. No use thinking about, well, anything right now. This hangover was killing me.
For the rest of the day, which wasn’t much considering I stumbled out of bed at three in the afternoon, I did nothing. I wasted away on the couch and coursed at myself for agreeing to hang out with Lizzie. Why’d we even gone to that last bar? Why’d I ordered all those shots? God, what had I been thinking?
It was already evening when I finally felt like a normal human being again. As I prepared myself a cheap meal, I checked my planner, only to be remembered how busy this week would be. Instead of doing anything else, I settled in front of my laptop, put on another episode of my show and ate dinner.
It wasn’t that late yet, but after last night, I knew I could use all the sleep I could get.
I was woken up in the middle of the night. At first I didn’t know what was going on, but then I heard some strange noises. For a moment I tried to ignore it, but then I couldn’t help but listen.
I hit the light switch and got out my phone. It was two in the goddamn morning! What was even going on? As I listened, though, my anger was replaced by worry. Where were those noises coming from? It sounded almost as if they were coming from inside my apartment.
As quietly as possible, I slipped out from under my blanket before I tiptoed towards the bedroom door and listened. Once more I could hear it. It was the sound of footsteps, quiet, soft footsteps. It was over as quickly as it had started, but was enough to scare me. Clutching onto my phone, I continued listening, but all was quiet.
Finally, I opened the bedroom door inch by inch, trying my hardest to not make any noise. For a moment I stared at the darkness ahead, waiting to see movement out there, but all was still. When I hit the light switch, all was normal. There was no hint of an intruder, the front door was still locked and nothing was amiss.
For the next minutes I checked every single spot in my entire apartment, but I found nothing out of the ordinary.
As I made my way back to the bedroom, I cursed to myself about whatever neighbor must’ve caused the noise and had woken me up. Whatever they’d done in the middle of the goddamn night had just cost me a good night’s rest.
The next week started off as bad as the last one and only got worse the longer it lasted. Apart from studying and project work, I was even asked to fill in for a sick co-worker at my part-time job. Knowing how much I could need the money, I agreed, but it also meant saying goodbye to all free time this week.
My evenings comprised nothing more than getting home, preparing myself a quick meal before I fell into bed, exhausted.
What made things even worse were the damned neighbors who continued their ruckus. Multiple times during the week, I was woken up in the middle of the night by their damned footsteps. I thought about confronting them about it, but I was too exhausted to do anything. Instead, I tried my best to ignore them and go back to sleep.
I don’t know how long it had been since I’d been so excited for a weekend and to get some well-earned rest.
When I awoke on Saturday, it was already noon, but for the first time in days I didn’t feel tired. After some breakfast at one in the afternoon, I took care of some well-overdo chores around the apartment before I went for a brief walk.
I’d barely made it back home when my phone rang.
I answered and who else but Lizzie was on the other line and of course she wanted to go partying. As nicely as possible, I told her I didn’t want to go out and get drunk this weekend and instead wanted to have a quiet evening.
At first Lizzie didn’t budge, but eventually she gave up on the partying and suggested she’d come over for the evening.
I opened my mouth to say no, but I gave in. Who was I kidding? Hanging out with Lizzie was always fun.
It was not even an hour later that a bouncy Lizzie greeted me.
“Well, slowpoke, how are you?”
“I’m all right,” I said, laughing a little and invited her in.
“Look what I brought, wine!”
With that, she triumphantly held out two bottles of wine for me to marvel at.
“Eh, I think I’ll pass. Last weekend was terrible.”
“You really are no fun,” she said, pouting on her way to the living room.
“Oh wow, is that your project?”
I joined her and nodded. “Yeah, but I’m not done yet. You know, since I like old photographs, I thought to make them into a collage. Putting together all those old memories into one, giant big view of a different time.”
“That’s so cool, Laurie! It’s way more interesting than mine!”
“What did you do?”
“Oh, just a sketch of Leo.”
“A sketch of your cat? That’s your entire project?”
She shrugged and went through the photographs on the collage.
“Hey Laurie, this one’s pretty weird,” she said after a while.
“Which one?” I asked, but I was sure I knew which one she was talking about.
“This creepy family here! Just look at them! The way they smile, it’s just… weird. It’s so unnatural. Seriously, what’s the matter with them? Looks like something out of a horror movie.”
“Yeah, it’s kind of odd, but it’s because of that, that I,” my voice trailed off as I stared at the photograph. Something was wrong. This time I knew it, this time it was more than just a little feeling. My eyes wandered over it, the row of people, the four little boys in the front and the elderly couple behind. Wait, was there always an elderly couple-
“Hey, stop spacing out! So you want to watch this movie?” Lizzie called out from the laptop.
I hadn’t even noticed her moving to the couch, much less talking to me. For a moment I stared at the strange photograph again before I shook my head. Stupid thing, Lizzie was right, it was creepy!
With that, I settled down on the couch next to her and we embarked on our adventure to find a movie to watch. It took us almost half an hour before we’d settled on an art-house movie that Lizzie was dying to watch and I was sure I could suffer through.
We’d barely finished the movie when I found myself drifting off.
“Hey Lizzie, I’m sorry, but I think I’m going to head to bed.”
“Oh, it’s all right Laurie, don’t worry about it.”
“You okay here on the couch? There’s a blanket over there and some pillows in case you-“
“It’s fine, it’s fine! I’ll figure out it, just go to bed already!”
I gave her a sleepy smile and set out on my way to bed. The moment I stretched out below the blanket, I felt myself drifting off to sleep.
What woke me up were the same strange sounds I’d heard before, the same quiet footsteps hurrying along somewhere nearby. This time, I got up, this time I’d had enough. I’d barely thrown aside my blanket and hit the light switch when I heard something else.
It was a muffled voice. No, a muffled, barely audible scream. It was Lizzie!
I grabbed the first blunt object I could find, the night lamp, and rushed toward the bedroom door. Outside the footsteps continued, but this time they were accompanied by giggling laughter, the laughter of people, of children.
What the hell was going on!?
The moment I burst from the door, the sounds had already stopped. All was quiet.
“Lizzie?” I called out. “Lizzie, are you okay?”
Quietly, my heart beating heavy in my chest, I made my way to the living room. In my mind I could already see her on the couch, as scared and confused about the neighbor’s weird sounds as I was.
“Lizzie, you all right?” I tried again.
When I stepped in the living room, though, there was no one there. All I could see was her blanket, on the floor in the middle of the room.
“Lizzie, where are you?” I called out, but once more I got no answer.
In sheer confusion, my eyes wandered all over the room, trying to figure out where she’d gone.
“Lizzie, if this is a joke, it’s not funny!”
Then I noticed something. Right there, on the floor, in front of the collage, I saw a black-and-white photograph.
I reached out with shaking hands, but even before I’d picked it up, I knew which one it would be.
I saw the same farmhouse, the same family, the same four boys in front, the same elderly couple in the back.
But then, furthest to the left, I saw a young woman. She wore the same antiquated attire as all the rest, but her face was entirely different. She wasn’t smiling, no she was screaming and looked utterly terrified.
But even with that expression, even in black-and-white and even in the old, grainy quality of the photograph, I recognized her instantly.
It was Lizzie.