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art by Tais Teng

Family Photo

Elena Gleason is a graduate student in Library and Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In addition to writing, she likes to bake (rarely the same thing twice) and carry enormous stacks of books home from the library. Her fiction has previously appeared in Fantasy Magazine.

Karlen washed the flecks of blood from her face and patted it dry, and as she ran the towel under her chin, she realized she'd missed a spot again. The towel was already stained, covered in streaks and splotches from other evenings, and she knew the new red mark would darken to match soon enough. She never quite managed to get all the blood on the first try.
Earlier that night, she'd left Peter with a kiss and a promise to be careful. Then she'd walked down to the park at the end of the block and sat under the big maple to wait, as she had every full moon for the past eleven months. Every full moon she would sit under the tree, take the folded snapshot out of her pocket, and remember the day the photo had been taken right in that spot. The tree had been bright orange with its fall foliage, and Wes had laughed as leaves were thrown into the air by sudden gusts of wind only to float gently down around them. He had been so happy that day. He had been happy, and so she and Peter had been happy too, all of them wearing silly grins with their hats and scarves, staring out of the photo with no clue that five months later Wes would be a monster. It was no wonder that Wes had been drawn to this place for his night of remembrance, the one night that he would recall who he had been. Remember his former life, and despise the memory.
With Karlen's father, it had been their house, and that had been harder. Her mother hadn't been able to bear to hurt him at first, and would send Karlen and her sister to stay with their aunt on full moon nights. When they came back the next day, something was always wrong: a picture missing from the wall, a new doorknob, plastic sheeting covering a window. Then one night, her mother hadn't sent them away. They stayed in their room, and her sister crawled into bed with Karlen, and all night they listened to their mother crying on the other side of the wall.
It had taken Wes early. Even Karlen's mother had been shocked, the woman who was always warning Karlen that he would become a monster someday. Someday, maybe, Karlen had thought. But maybe not. Maybe Wes would be different. Maybe, after so many generations, it would stop. And then she went to wake him for school one morning and he was shaking with fever. He wouldn't wake up, and when his eyes were forced open, the whites were bright yellow and the veins were swollen and bright red. She had known, then, and she should have done it straightaway, ended it quietly and peacefully. She could have just reached for the pillow under his head and it would have been over. But she couldn't. She couldn't, and so he shivered feverishly for days, and then, while Karlen was out at the drugstore buying more useless medications, the monster that had been her son woke up and escaped, leaving Peter with a broken arm and a piece of flesh missing from his bicep.
Tonight, after several hours of waiting under the maple, Karlen had carefully replaced the photo in her pocket and removed the knife and the vial of chilled pig blood from the other one. She had moved the knife back and forth above her arms and torso before settling on her face. She hadn't done a face wound yet. Hoping it wouldn't scar, Karlen had held her breath and shut her eyes as she drew the knife across her left cheekbone under her eye, causing blood to run down her cheek and gather in the corner of her mouth. She then splashed the pig blood onto her shoulder and chest before climbing stiffly to her feet and walking home to wash it all off again.
Karlen walked into the bedroom and tossed her bloodstained shirt and towel into the hamper. Peter waited for her, sitting against the headboard. A book was open on his lap, but Karlen knew he wouldn't have read a page all night. She deposited the worn photo onto the nightstand before climbing into bed next to him. He kissed her cheek lightly, below her newly applied bandage. "Did everything go okay?" he asked, his forehead creased with worry.
"It was the same as always," Karlen told him, and picked at a loose thread on the blanket in order to avoid seeing the same peculiar mixture of disappointment and relief she always saw on his face after a full moon night.
"It's okay," he told her, curling an arm around her shoulders and kissing her temple. "You'll get him next time."
She said nothing, but turned to face him fully and wrapped her arms around his back, holding him tightly. Peter's arms closed around her, and his hand made soothing circles on her back. "You'll get him next time," he assured her again, face pressed into her shoulder, breath warm on her neck.
Karlen never could bring herself to tell Peter she'd killed Wes the first time he'd entered the park, his yellow-red eyes looking sick and manic. He had leaped toward her, snarling, and she had held out the knife instinctively as he tackled her to the ground, burying the knife in his stomach before either of them realized. She had held him as he died, his weight greater than she remembered, pinning her to the ground as she stroked his hair and rubbed his back and told him over and over that he was perfect, the best boy ever, and she loved him.
She could see the photo on the nightstand over Peter's shoulder. It had begun to tear along the crease. Soon it would be in two pieces, she and Peter each on one half and Wes sliced in two.
Karlen pulled away from Peter and turned out the light.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

Author Comments

I read a lot of books and watch a lot of TV involving people who slay monsters, many of whom were once human. The monsters' human families rarely make an appearance except as victims, and I always wonder how they cope with a suddenly monstrous parent, child, or sibling, and how the rest of their lives are changed by the experience. "Family Photo" is my exploration of that idea.

- Elena Gleason
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