“Snapshots” by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt

TWA 58 Donald-01

1.

A Christmas tree stands in a bay window, perhaps a quarter of its bulbs burnt out. A young man in striped pajamas holds up a battered yellow box containing a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye camera. He beams. Next to him sits a girl maybe two years older. A Barbie doll lies across her lap. She wears pajamas and a disappointed expression. On the right side of the image sits a woman in a worn blue-gray dressing gown with dark circles under her eyes. On the left side, a man sits in an easy chair holding a tumbler with a dark amber liquid.

Note on the back: Nicholas Tobin, Jr., age 14.

2.

A tract house in the ranch style with a single-car garage. Its off-white siding could use a fresh coat of paint. A gray post-dawn sky looms over the scene. Mrs. Tobin hugs her daughter to her. Both women wear matching puffy black parkas. Mr. Tobin yells at the blur of a terrier mutt frolicking in the snow. The Christmas tree shines its lukewarm optimism from the bay window.

An extremely large or extremely close finger covers the top quarter of the picture.

Note on the back: Christmas 1969.

3.

A room in cream wallpaper with an orange flocked pattern. In the center of the photo stands a dark-stained oval table. One can see the dust on the pendant light fixture. The daughter sits at the side of the table, slouched in her chair. Mrs. Tobin sits at the foot of the table, her head in her hands. Mr. Tobin stands at the head. He points a carving knife across the table at Mrs. Tobin. His face is flushed and he is yelling. Before him sits a turkey on a silver platter, the skin burnt, the meat dry.

5.

Nicholas kneels on the floor of his room, the brown box of the camera at his side. He pastes strips of wallpaper to sheets of cardboard, cream with an orange flocked pattern. To the side stands a pink plastic doll’s table covered with a white cotton handkerchief.

6.

In a room with cream wallpaper in an orange flocked pattern, a pink plastic table stands, covered with a white handkerchief. Barbie sits at the foot of the table, Ken at the head. Skipper sits between them on one side, Todd across from her. The places are set for each of the dolls, white plastic plates with gray plastic silverware. On one side of the table stands the tip of a spruce branch, festooned with small balls of crumpled aluminum foil. On the other side, on a gray plastic serving tray, lies a dead mouse. Ken holds a knife and fork over the mouse. Dried blood covers the mouse’s nose.

14.

Barbie lies in a pink plastic bed, Ken next to her. Ken sits upright, looking ahead. At the foot of the bed, glowing ghostly thanks to the double exposure of the film, floats a dead mouse.

26.

Nicholas sits on the floor of his room, eyes red from crying. He cradles his camera protectively. Dolls lie scattered everywhere. The pink table is flipped over, two of its legs snapped. Mr. Tobin crushes the cardboard walls of the dining room set.

27.

Nicholas’ sister runs away from the camera. Mrs. Tobin uses her hand to block half of the shot. One can still see bruise forming on the young woman’s cheek.

28.

Nicholas sits stiffly at the family table. Mr. Tobin smiles down at the boy. Mrs. Tobin looks at her husband with concern. Before Nicholas rests a twelve-gauge shotgun. Above his head is an orb of light.

Note on the back: Nicholas Tobin’s 15th Birthday.

30.

Nicholas and his father stand in front of the Tobin home. They wear matching camouflage jackets. Nicholas looks away from his father and toward the ground. The Brownie hangs from his belt.

31.

On a pile of brown leaves lies a dead rabbit. Its rear left leg ends in a bloody stump. Its entrails spill from a stomach wound onto the leaves. Blood stains the nose of the animal.

On the left edge of the shot, one can just see a pile of vomit.

33.

Ken lies in bed. Barbie holds a pillow over his face. His legs kick up in the air. Skipper and Todd watch from the corner of the room.

34.

Barbie sits behind the steering wheel of a pink plastic van. The front tires of the vehicle rest on a fallen Ken. Entrails spill onto black paper. A black spot hovers over Barbie’s head.

Note on the back: Chicken guts? Too big to be from a mouse. Rabbit?

42.

Nicholas and his father stand in the woods. They hold up the head of a deer by the antlers, one on either side. Nicholas looks to the left. His face is pale.

There is a streak of light over Mr. Tobin’s head.

44.

A deer hangs by its hind legs in a dark space, presumably the Tobin’s garage. It has been gutted, and the skin is pulled back to reveal the ribs and empty abdominal cavity. Blood drips from the nose and collects in a plastic bucket beneath the head of the animal.

45.

Mr. Tobin sleeps on a brown plaid couch. The shot is taken so that the head points toward the bottom of the photo, the feet point to the top.

46.

Via double exposure, the carcass of the deer is superimposed over the sleeping Mr. Tobin. The splayed chest merges with Mr. Tobin’s torso. The fur of the deer merges with the brown of the couch. Horns seem to sprout from the head of the man.

55.

A dreary day, the sky stacked with gray clouds. Nicholas, his sister, and their mother stand in a graveyard. Nicholas wears a black suit, the women black dresses. Next to them lies an open grave. Nicholas does not cry, but he hugs his camera tightly to his chest.

56-69.

Dirt walls edge three sides of the photos, the center dominated by the curved mahogany lid of a coffin. In the second photo of the series, a shovelful of dirt lies scattered over the lid. Each subsequent snapshot shows more and more dirt on the coffin, until it is completely covered.

73.

Mrs. Tobin and her daughter huddle together in front of the Tobin home, the dog at their ankles. A tree stands in the bay window, but it is not lit. The young woman makes an effort to smile, but Mrs. Tobin wears a harried look, dark circles under her eyes.

A black spot mars the upper right corner of the photo.

Note on the back: Christmas 1970.

78.

Nicholas sits on the floor of his room, his camera on his lap. In front of him sits a shoebox perhaps a quarter full of snapshots. Nicholas looks at one of the photos and makes a note in the open notebook to his right.

79.

Against a black construction paper backdrop stands a cardboard tombstone. The stone bears the name Bambi. In front of it, on a piece of green construction paper, lies a dead mouse, its entrails spilled, blood soaking into the paper.

A white spot blurs the upper right corner of the photograph. It is unclear whether the spot is a finger, a failed attempt at a double exposure, or something else.

82-87.

Night. At the center of the photo stands a granite tombstone. The carved letters read: Nicholas Tobin, Sr., Beloved husband and father. 1929-1970. Before the tombstone lies the Tobin family dog, guts and blood spilling onto the ground.

88.

The foreground of the photo seems the same as the previous series of photos. The same grave. The same dark sky. The wet spot under the dog has grown larger.

Above the top of the tombstone, a white streak glows, like the moon shining through a wisp of mist.

91.

A cardboard backdrop decorated with trees cut from magazines. Barbie, Skipper, and Todd wear formal black clothes. They stand around a cardboard tombstone. Above their heads floats a naked double-exposure Ken, hands reaching for the heads of the other dolls.

The tombstone bears the name Nicholas Tobin.

97.

Barbie lies naked in a pink plastic bed. Black yarn ties her hands and feet to the four corners. Skipper and Todd stand at the foot of the bed wearing striped pajamas. Both hold plastic knives in their hands. From above, a ghostly Ken looks on approvingly.

109.

Barbie and Skipper sit at their duct-tape repaired table with its miniature Christmas tree. They hold knives and forks at the ready. Todd lies naked on the table, a ribbon of entrails reaching the floor. Ken joins his happy family at the head of the table through the magic of double exposure.

121.

Barbie and Todd ride in a pink plastic van. Under the front wheels of the vehicle lie Skipper and a dead mouse on a yarn leash. A ketchup stain spreads under both victims. Double-exposure Ken looks down on the scene from the roof of the van.

128.

Nicholas’ sister sits on the floor of her brother’s room, a shoebox pulled from under the bed. She has a handful of snapshots in front of her and wears a look of confusion and horror.

141.

Mrs. Tobin and her daughter stand in front of the family home. The young woman seems about to bolt from her mother’s touch. The Christmas tree stands in the bay window. Half of its bulbs are out. Just visible in the left of the shot is a red For Sale sign.

A black smear above the roof mars the photograph.

Note on the back: Christmas 1971.

144.

Night. Nicholas’ sister is in bed, sheets twisted around her body. Her head points toward the bottom of the snapshot. Hovering in the middle of the shot is the doll van parked over Skipper, added to the scene through double exposure.

167.

Nicholas’ sister is in his face, yelling at him. She points at the camera at his belt. With her other hand, she holds a number of snapshots, each with her in them. Mrs. Tobin stands behind both of her children; her eyes seem almost sunk into her skull. She seems confused, lost.

Nicholas shows no emotion.

179.

Nicholas’ sister lies on the pavement, a white van parked on top of her. Blood streams from a dozen places. Her eyes are closed. The door to the van is open. There is no sign of the driver.

181.

Nicholas’ sister lies in a hospital bed, eyes closed. Wires and tubes connect her to a series of monitors. Mrs. Tobin kneels at the side of the bed, her hands clasped together.

182.

Same shot of Mrs. Tobin and her comatose daughter, over which has been superimposed a shot of Mr. Tobin’s grave. The upper left corner of the photo holds a white orb of light.

197.

The Tobin home. A rough wooden ramp leads to the front door. Mrs. Tobin pushes a wheelchair bearing her daughter up the ramp. Nicholas holds the front door open for his mother and sister, his camera at his belt.

202-208.

Nicholas’ sister sits in her wheelchair. Her eyes are unfocused, or perhaps stare somewhere to the distant left of the shot. In the sequence of photos, a string of drool runs down the young woman’s chin to drip onto her chest.

215.

Nicholas’ sister sits in her wheelchair. Her eyes are wide and she stares above her. A black cloud floats over her head.

219.

Nicholas stands at the counter of a film developing lab, his camera in his hand. He is yelling at the man behind the counter. The man is confused and yelling back. He points at Nicholas.

A white orb obscures the top half on Nicholas’ head.

221.

Mrs. Tobin and her daughter sleep huddled together in the same bed. A dark mist swirls around both of their faces.

233.

Ken and Barbie, Skipper and Todd sit at their Christmas table. Ken looks at Barbie, Barbie looks at Skipper, Skipper looks at Ken. Each holds a knife. Todd looks above the others’ heads. Over the table dance the ghosts of a dozen dead mice.

246.

Nicholas’ sister sits in her wheelchair. Her right hand clutches a Barbie doll, her left hand clutches Ken. She stares at the dolls. Her mouth is open in a scream.

Two black swirls cover her eyes.

259.

Nicholas’ sister sits in her wheelchair in front of the Tobin home. Her mother stands behind her. She has a white-knuckle grip on the wheelchair. Tears stream down her face. The For Sale sign has the word Sold plastered over it.

There is no tree in the window.

A black mass has replaced the sky.

Note on the back: Christmas 1972.

267.

Flames shoot up from a steel burn barrel. Barbie, Ken, Skipper, and Todd melt in the fire. Nicholas stares at the flames, his camera hugged to his chest.

Smoke mingles with a black cloud above him.

271.

A shot of Mr. Tobin’s grave. A white flare obscures the photo to the point that the words carved into the tombstone cannot be read.

272.

Three dirt walls frame the sides of the photograph. Straight ahead is a mahogany coffin top, covered in a couple shovelfuls of dirt.

275.

The Tobin family table. Nicholas’ sister sits in the center of the shot in her wheelchair. Mrs. Tobin sits at the foot of the table. Her wrists, ankles, and waist are bound to the chair with rope. She yells at the photographer. A dead rabbit lies in the center of the table on a silver platter.

At the head of the table, propped up in the chair, sits the corpse of Mr. Tobin.

280.

Early dawn. The sun rises over the remains of the Tobin home, burned to its foundation. Smoke, or a dark mist, or something else obscures most of the photograph.

294.

Mug shot of Nicholas Tobin, Jr., age 17.

295.

Nicholas lies on a jail cell bed, head to the bottom of the shot. Over him looms a large black mass. His eyes are open and he is screaming. Three tendrils reach out to him from the mass.

296.

Nicholas is in his jail cell, hanged by his own entrails.

298.

A brown steel desk, bearing a brass nameplate that reads: Det. Stuart Reed. On the desk sits an old shoebox, scorched by fire, and a Brownie Hawkeye camera. The camera bears no sign of fire.

A sequence of photos lies beside the box. Next to them is a yellow legal pad. One can clearly make out an underlined sentence, even though the words are upside down: Who took the photographs of Nicholas?

The handwriting is the same as that on the back of the photographs.

300.

Detective Reed is in his office, hanged by his own belt. A black cloud obscures his face.

 

 

 

 


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Donald Jacob Uitvlugt hardly needs an introduction. He has long been a part of the arena as one of its weekly judges. Donald strives to write what he calls “haiku fiction,” stories that are small in scope but big on impact. Find out more about haiku fiction here. He welcomes comments at his blog http://haikufiction.blogspot.com or via Twitter @haikufictiondju).

 

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5 Comments

  1. You could do this. I mean you could actually DO this. Somebody do this please.

    This is…this is incredible. The only comment I can make here is that there were a few moments when I wished the descriptions had been slightly more clinical. But other than that, this is beautiful, and creepy and perfect.

  2. Reading this was so surreal this morning. I couldn’t help but think…actually hang on. Let’s start with: this was fucking fantastic. And I don’t really swear here in the comments but WOW. The horror on display here is perfect, everything slowly got creepier and creepier and it was just so freaking good. The slow inclusion of worrying details and the way the story was told through snapshots (more on that in a sec), I mean this is some amazing storytelling. And the final turn? So good.

    And then you step back and you realize that Donald told a story to fit the prompt by USING the prompt! The prompt is the story is the method is the story. This is freaking amazing.

    I sort of give spoilers for my own story “Visible Image” coming up so if you haven’t read it yet, I guess go do that first.

    To circle back around to what I started with, though, as I read through “Snapshots” this morning I was struck by how Donald and I both tackled this thing in the same way. Supernatural, serial killing, death cameras. I mean can you imagine that this all takes place in the same story universe? You do NOT want to work in a camera store there.

    Excellent work, Donald.

  3. This didn’t work for me at first.

    I got a little lost half way through and started over. I got confused a little later on in the narrative, then went away to think about things and when I came back Joe and Al had commented.

    So what had they seen that I didn’t see? Apparently, everything.

    My third and fourth reads through were much more rewarding, and I get it now. My sole issue, therefore, is that this is a lot of style (really well done, no argument there) but there is no character and no dialog for a reader to attach themselves to. That makes it a harder read. More rewarding, certainly, because it’s worth being there for the payoff, but do readers really want to decode the thing for themselves? And what happens if, as I did, they fall off?

    This is really good. I’m impressed with the technique and the way the narrative still works even though it’s so pared back to the essentials. That takes real skill.

  4. 1.
    Reader sits at computer screen to read short story.

    2.
    Early in the narrative the corner of reader’s mouth turns upward in a pleased half smile, in evident delight at the carefully efficient attention to detail cast in the setting.

    3.
    Reader furrows brow in concentration, revealing the discovery of an evident twist in the narrative betraying hints of possible supernatural components subtlety imbued throughout. Reader is now fully invested in the story.

    4.
    Reader furrows brow even further, concentrating even more deeply as a shadow passes in front of his eyes, and….um…teeth are revealed through what appears to be a smile. Really? A dark blur swirls above his head.

    5.
    Reader’s brow suddenly inverts in expression of sadness and shock.

    6.
    Sadness.

    7.
    Sadness still, poetically prolonged. Despairing, but beautiful.

    8.
    Reader’s face goes pale, bearing the expression of gag reflex.

    9.
    Reader sits still for a few moments, eyes closed. Lengthy pause to gather his composure before continuing on.

    10.
    Reader re-reads previous paragraph. Nope, gag reflex still lurking.

    11.
    Reader finishes story, then looks off into the distance, lost in thought in imaginative re-framing of the narrative.

    12.
    Reader sits with the story for a while, entertaining increasingly disturbed thoughts regarding lived lives between the flashbulbs.

    13.
    Reader begins commenting, suddenly more aware that a 100 year old Brownie camera sits on a bookshelf, just a few feet behind where he sits at his desk, typing a comment. Typing a comment. Type…type…typing this comment.

  5. A few additional notes:

    This story hooked me right away. It was a very novel approach, clinically describing intermittent snapshots with such insightful detail as to tell such a broad, heartbreaking and at times even terrifying story. And using the dolls to further the narrative in the way this story did felt dirty, awful, and genius at the same time. It was brilliant.

    A good deal of what I do in my work is personal media archiving. As such I handle countless film reels and still images of clients and their families going back many decades – documenting special events and memorable moments from generation to generation. One of the things that has stuck with me through this work (and was called to mind in this story) is that in traditional film imaging (pre-digital era), most such documentation was staged or opportunistic, reserved primarily for specific highlights, holidays, and special events, owed largely to the efforts and costs involved consumer film photography. In retrospect the smaller, but more prolific details of life lived between the flashbulbs were left to the imagination. One must speculate on the monotony of life, or the minutiae of details that make a life when it is otherwise not staged for a camera.

    This story turned that phenomena on its head. While some of the points of narrative center around traditionally momentous occasions, the subtext of the lives lived around them is at the forefront. And the way that the descriptions of each scene and setting were clinically conveyed in detached detail I actually felt a more visceral investment into the lives of the characters and their circumstances. While this is certainly a very risky approach to storytelling, I believe it worked perfectly here, possibly because it made me, as the reader, feel a little bit uncomfortable spying on these characters, seeing things I shouldn’t see, and knowing things about them that I shouldn’t know.

    I love this.

    It is brilliant.

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