Thousand Words Project

Find out what a picture is worth.

Last Summer

Mark only looks at the photograph when the air outside has grown cold and it has become difficult to breathe. He keeps it carefully tucked between the pages of a book he’s never read. After all, he was never the one who enjoyed words on a page. The book is one of Charlie’s, and the pages of it are nearly the same color as the photograph masquerading as a bookmark.

Charlie read a great deal in those days, when they would escape to the lake to spend hours drifting across the placid surface of the water. Mark had taken these moments to pretend to fish. In truth he’d never really been focusing on the reel. His eyes, of their own accord, would always shift to Charlie, stretched out on his back, whatever book of the moment resting on his chest. Not often, but occasionally, their eyes would meet across the boat and Charlie would smile, wide and boyish. Mark was never much for smiling either, but alone with the sun in his eyes, the corners of his mouth would lift just slightly. Afterwards he would put the reel aside and leap from the boat into the warm water. It made his skin tingle and he could lose himself for a time while Charlie watched him over the top of his book.

Today, Mark has a job at a factory where they make parts for something that is itself likely just a part for something else. The job is not difficult and merely requires that Mark pull certain levers at the right moments. He finds this relaxing, there being a kind of reassurance mixed in with the monotony. There are only occasional moments when he will feel that unfamiliar twinge that he has no name for. When this happens he will request an extra shift. If there is no room for the extra shift, he will stop by the Beer & Wine shop on the corner for a six pack. He sleeps better after a few, and the buzzing in his brain is something verging on soothing. The twinge goes away nearly always.

It is late November when he starts having the dreams. They start with just a feeling, like waves rocking a boat. He wakes in the night surprised to be in his own bed, chilled and alone. The twinge is alive in his heart.

A week later it becomes something more. He can feel heat beating down on him from a sun high in the sky. A line of sweat works its way down his back leaving a slick trail in its wake. There is the sound of laughing and water. Under his palms he can feel rough wooden planks, slightly moist. When he opens his eyes and only the broken ceiling fan in his bedroom is hanging above him. He experiences disappointment for the first time in many years.

On his walk home from the factory the next day it begins to snow. He has trouble breathing through the cold seeping into his bones. He watches the crystals as they cling to the sleeves of his coat and thinks about the photograph inside the book resting on its shelf. He stops at that Beer & Wine before he goes home. He drinks four of the six from the pack and goes to bed with his mind numb and buzzing.

The dream is different again. There is still the gentle rocking, the rough wood, sounds of water and laughter. He can see now though, leaning back against the motor and smiling, Charlie. He is young as always and his eyes are kind and teasing. The laughter is his and he is pointing at something behind Mark. A soft breeze causes the fabric of his loose fitting shirt to rustle, just a little. He is close enough to touch.

“Turn around Mark”

Charlie’s voice, by shades rough and warm, light like the breeze. Mark turns around.

His head is heavy and his chest tight when he wakes. For a disconcerting moment he can still hear laughter from somewhere.

In a daze half borne of cheap beer and half of sleepiness, he makes his way to the living room. Next to the couch is his humble bookshelf. He fumbles blindly for what he needs, but his hands are true. He never forgets where the book is. In the dim light the streetlight throws into his apartment he opens it and the photograph falls into his lap. The twinge has grown to something nearing unbearable.

Charlie smiles up at Mark, eternally youthful aside from the fading edges of the photograph. There, next to Charlie, is another Mark. This one younger, shirtless and scowling, just a little, at someone on the dock. They are a study in contrasts as they always were. Mark and Charlie, on the lake, during that last summer. He cradles the reminder of this in his palms before smoothing a thumb across the scene as if he could bring it to life or maybe erase it. He is not sure anymore which would be better or easier.

Outside it is still snowing, the flakes swirling in the hazy light before falling to blanket to street in perfect whiteness. Mark closes his eyes and leans his head back against the wall and allows himself just this moment to remember.