“Another re-run,” Gabe sighed as he unloaded his toolbox. “That’s it, I’m getting a second six pack.” He used his foot to slide the van door shut and, with a deep breath, sauntered toward his last appointment of the day. A familiar doormat lay on the porch: two yellow shoe outlines against a periwinkle background. The inside of the outlines contained a series of curved lines with corresponding shoe sizes. Each shoe bore the same shape but their measurements differed. One would look at the left side for feminine measurements, to the right for masculine. Gabe was reminded that he wore a size 11, as well as a ladies’ 13. With another sigh, Gabe gave the door a knock.
Mr. Bynes was nice enough on Gabe’s previous appointment. According to the service sheet, only three days had elapsed. He remembered the installation; Mr. Bynes had purchased a next generation three-dimensional TV. At a sixty-inch size, it was surprisingly light and easy to maneuver. Mounting it had hardly taken Gabe any time. He hoped that his speedy installation was not the root of the problem.
The biggest issue with re-runs was that they usually carried a hint of hostility. Sometimes it was indirect. In these instances, every routine remedy could become a focal point for whoever was home. It was as if the customers’ initial lack of supervision were behind the failed first attempt. Not only was personal space limited, but critiques and advice were multiplied.
Occasionally, hostility was direct. It was then that the first attempt failed due to Gabe’s incompetence and idiocy. Customers who purchased higher priced TVs were generally nicer to deal with the first time around.
Not so much on the second visit.
The door opened, with Mr. Bynes standing at the entrance. “Ah, you again” he said, his tone lacking accusation.
“Mr. Harrison Bynes, right? And hello again sir. My name’s Gabe and I’m here to help. Worksheet says that you’re concerned about the sturdiness of the unit’s mount. Do I have that correctly?”
Mr. Bynes hesitated before answering. His turquoise eyes met Gabe’s for a few moments. Gabe reasoned that Mr. Bynes was tired or getting ill; one of his eyes had the red hue that accompanied irritation. “Yes, I suppose we did file a claim. Please come in.”
Gabe stepped into the house and then waited.
Mr. Bynes motioned for Gabe to continue, “I’m sure you remember the way.”
It was not all that uncommon for re-runs to allow Gabe to lead. They usually preferred to follow as it gave them the opportunity to keenly oversee the repair. When Mr. Bynes did not move from the door, Gab found himself puzzled. He started down the hall, but could not resist turning his head toward where Mr. Bynes stood.
“Just down the hall. Big room on the right,” Mr. Bynes reminded him.
“Right. I mean, right–on the right.” Gabe shook his head, chastising himself for not jumping at the opportunity to work with a bit of freedom. If Mr. Bynes wanted to stand at the door all day long, that was his business.
Gabe passed the kitchen, glancing inside. His eyes were drawn to the refrigerator. It was decorated with magnets, each responsible for holding a glossy photo. Every magnet, except for one.
He peeked over his shoulder to see Mr. Bynes still standing at the front door. One of his hands rested on the door’s handle, but there was no effort to close it. He was not glaring in anger, nor did he seem to acknowledge Gabe’s concern over his whereabouts. He was simply watching Gabe’s journey to the television.
Despite the beautiful day, heavy curtains blocked the room’s large panel window. Two smaller windows were also shut off from view via blinds. Still, ample lighting shined down from the skylight overhead. Another light source came from a small reading lamp next to a recliner. On one of the chair’s plush arms lay a book partially open: Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
The big screen had been mounted across the room. Each side of the room had an L shaped couch. They were arranged in opposing positions that would form a rectangle if pushed together. Placed in the middle of the arrangement lay a fur rug. Two bear heads were at the ends of the rug, one on each side. One of the heads was fierce, with fiery slanted eyes and mouth full of fangs. The second was expressionless, jaws closed, with passive blue eyes.
Gabe walked across the living room and reached the TV. He experienced some difficulty in locating exactly where the mount was faulty, it looked perfectly secure. It was comforting to see that his handiwork had indeed held up, but it was awkward having to tell customers that a problem they thought existed was imaginary. Deciding against raising his voice across the house, Gabe walked back to Mr. Bynes.
“Sir, I wasn’t able to locate exactly where mount was giving you trouble. Would you mind showing me yourself?”
“No, there isn’t an issue with the mount,” Mr. Bynes replied. He left his position at the front door, leading Gabe towards the living room. “We think it has to do with the imagery.”
“Oh, I’m sorry sir. Someone must have misunderstood the request.” Gabe reached in his back pocket for the work order. “I’m afraid that picture and sound issues aren’t really serviceable on-site. Top Tech does guarantee all of its products for three months. I can take the TV back for repair if you’d like.”
Mr. Bynes reached the living room and grabbed the remote. “It has nothing to do with the quality of the image. We just feel that this is something you will be able to assist us with.”
And with the push of a couple of buttons, Gabe’s mind was changed. The TV was now powered on…and it was displaying a still image of Gabe standing in the living room. Toolbox was in hand, Gabe was in the act of finishing his first visit.
Gabe’s heart was pounding. He could feel Mr. Bynes’ gaze, but was unable to look anywhere besides the TV. The image began to play, showing Gabe walking away. The video switched camera angles then showed a front view of Gabe entering the kitchen. He quickly grasped a single photograph from the refrigerator, stuffed it into his pocket, and promptly exited.
The video started over, reverting to Gabe standing in the living room. It was on some sort of continuous loops. On the third playback Mr. Bynes paused the video. The screen was now a still shot of Gabe, photo in hand. The image was so clear that the photo’s contents could easily be seen. It showed a redheaded woman sticking her tongue out at an organ donor pamphlet that she was reading. Her free hand was either flipping off the camera, the photographer, or both.
“Still think that there isn’t anything you can do to help?” asked Mr. Bynes.
Gabe knew that he could only look at the TV for so long. Unable to think of anything else to say, he turned toward Mr. Bynes and muttered, “I’m sorry.”
“You’re sorry? Sorry?” Mr. Bynes replied. “Your demeanor does not appear remorseful and your tone is insincere. Why say words that you obviously do not mean?”
Gabe stayed silent. His only response was to look up from the floor and meet Mr. Byne’s stare. His bad eye was progressively being overtaken with redness.
What seemed like an eternity went by. The only noise Gabe could hear came from the kitchen. It was the study hum of refrigerator, inaudible until now. Mr. Bynes stood still with his arms crossed. He appeared content to watch Gabe cope with the situation, the expression on his face still one of observance.
Gabe finally spoke. “I still have it. The picture. I can get it back to you in no time.”
Mr. Bynes walked over to one of the couches and sat. He gestured for Gabe to do the same. “Why did you do it?”
Gabe felt that compliance was the best option. He walked over to the couch, taking the moment as an opportunity to look around the room.
“You cannot see them. That is the whole point of hidden surveillance, to remain unseen. Now answer the question.”
Gabe didn’t answer right away. He looked down and studied the bear rug. Even though he sat parallel to their heads, both sets of eyes felt like they were focused on him. Eventually he said, “I didn’t think you’d notice.”
“Naturally,” said Mr. Bynes. “But you are not fully answering our question. Why steal a photograph?”
Gabe stalled. “I don’t know. I kind of liked it.”
“I can tell when people are lying. I hardly think a picture of a stranger has any value to you. I have not filed a report to authorities, yet. If you are not going to be honest, then there is nothing else for us to talk about.”
The refrigerator continued to hum. Mr. Bynes started to get up, prompting Gabe to confess, “They’re irreplaceable. You lose most things, you can just go out and get another. It’s not the same with pictures.”
Mr. Bynes rested back into the couch, content with the answer. “So. This is a regular occurrence.”
Gabe felt alarmed. He had inadvertently outed himself. Getting caught stealing once would likely cost him his job. But if they alerted other victims, who knew how things would escalate. “So now what?” he asked.
The stoic expression on Mr. Bynes’ face was replaced with a small smile. It did not have a comforting effect. “We think there may be a solution.”
Gabe drove his work van, speaking only when answering one of Mr. Bynes’ many questions. Topics varied: What did Gabe do with his photo collection? What was his upbringing like? Why did Gabe make use of the shoe sizing doormat during his second visit, but not the first?
They reached their destination, a small pink house on the other side of town. It wasn’t until the van was parked that Mr. Bynes shared what he had in mind. A once bright late afternoon had transitioned into a darkening evening.
“This is her house,” he said. “Madeline, the lovely woman from the photo you took. What we want from you is to replace the irreplaceable. There is a…private collection of pictures that Maddie keeps underneath her bed. You are going to go inside and retrieved the collection. They can likely be found inside a shoebox.”
Gabe was quite certain that breaking and entering was a worse crime than his photo thievery. “I don’t know if this is such a good idea,” he said.
“You are overthinking it. The plan is sound,” Mr. Bynes replied. He reached into his pocket and produced a copper housekey. “Maddie is out of town. This key will open the front door. I will wait for you here.”
“Can’t you just go in there yourself?” Gabe asked. “You’ll probably know your way around better than me.”
“Well then you will miss out on your chance to make amends. Allow us to sweeten the deal. You may keep one of the photos for your irreplaceable collection.”
Gabe continued to sit, not all the way convinced. This made Mr. Bynes speak firmly and with authority. “Are you comprehending the seriousness of your predicament? Do you think your employer will simply terminate you and then everyone moves on? If you force us to file a report, we’ll be sharing your history of collecting. Theft is intrusive by nature, people will care. Doing this is really for your own best interest.”
“Alright, I’ll do it,” Gabe conceded. “But just so you know, if she comes home early or anything, I’m getting the hell out of there.”
“Fair enough,” said Mr. Bynes.
Gabe left the van and walked toward the house. He was anxious, but moved with confidence. Half of any façade is in the appearance of belonging. Having possession of the key helped him feel inconspicuous to anyone watching. He noticed that the lawn was in poor shape, the grass dry and brown. What looked like a once thriving assortment of flowers was wilted from neglect. It made Gabe wonder just how long Maddie had been out of town.
The key slid smoothly into the hole and, with a turn, Gabe was in. It seemed reasonable to lock the door behind him. The air in the house tasted stale and muggy, a further indication of prolonged vacancy. There was an urge to snoop around the unattended house, but Gabe quickly regained focus. Even if Maddie wasn’t around, it was still eerie to know that Mr. Bynes was outside.
That didn’t mean that Gabe had to walk through the house with blinders on. As he crept his way to where he assumed the bedroom would be, he observed numerous pictures of Maddie. She was not a happy person. Being a redhead made her stand out in group photos. Those got a smirk, at best. Her solo shots were a different story. Maddie even had a framed mugshot, enlarged in black and white. And red. Her hair was the source of the image’s sole color. The poster-sized picture was framed and hung in the living room.
Also in the room lay an animal rug. It was similar to the one he had seen earlier in the day, a two-headed beast, one side fierce and the other peaceful. The difference was that Maddie’s rug was composed of lions. The male lion was calm and did not warrant much attention when compared to the female. Not only was her expression captivating, atop her head was a mohawk. The hairdo had been tie-dyed bright red.
Gabe turned down the hallway and saw two doorways. The first was on his right, which he identified as the bathroom. Maddie’s bedroom door was closed, but had no lock. The air inside her room was also aged. It almost appeared that no one had been inside for some time when he noticed the dresser mirror. A layer of dust occupied only the bottom part of glass.
Gabe laid himself down onto the carpet and lifted the bed sheets. There were numerous shoeboxes underneath the bed’s frame. Many of the boxes contained boots or heals, but not all of them. One stood apart from the rest: a royal blue Adidas shoebox. The box’s contents were lightweight, he could hear the shuffling of pages as he retrieved it. He was about to open it and look inside when the front door opened and slammed shut.
He was no longer alone in the house. Gabe lied still and listened. The distinct sound of a lock being turned was followed by footsteps. Gabe guessed that it was someone walking in the kitchen. Grasping the box, Gabe got up and looked for somewhere to hide. His quickest option was a closet across the room from the entrance. The closet door was left a crack open, just enough to give him a partial view of the room.
A harsh, feminine voice broke the silence, “That’s strange. I usually keep this door closed.”
Maddie was home. And she knew that something was amiss.
“Nothing looks stolen though.”
That gave Gabe some hope. Maybe Maddie would take a moment to report the break-in to the police. He could bide his time and then slip out when she was on the phone or something. He heard the click of a switch and the room became lit. The light also revealed a newspaper clipping, laying on the carpet near the closet door. It must have fallen out of the box during the rush.
All he could do was stare at the paper and wait. The article landed close enough for Gabe to make out the headline: Death of Local Woman Ruled Suicide: Donates Home, Heart to Half Brother. Underneath the text was a split image, one side occupied by an intense image of Maddie, the other an image of an expressionless Mr. Bynes.
That meant whoever else was in the house couldn’t be Maddie.
Shocked, Gabe couldn’t help but let out an audible gasp.
“Who’s in there? Yelled the mystery voice. Gabe was able to see a hand reach into the bed stand. The moment he saw the bright blade of the butcher’s knife, he burst out of the closet. A few strides was all it took to have a lead on the knife wilder.
Through peripheral vision, Gabe swore that he had seen a head full of red hair. Could it have been Maddie after all? Maybe she had a twin sister. He had just exited the hallway when he lost his grip on the box. It slipped down, fell between his feet, and caused him to trip. He sprawled onto the carpet, eyes inches away from the jaws of the mohawked lioness.
Glossy pages and newspaper clippings scattered everywhere. The pictures were indeed of intimate nature, naked flesh and red hair calling for Gabe’s attention. He might have appreciated them under different circumstances…or if half the nudity didn’t feature the male form. Stunned, Gabe studied the images. Every nude pose that Maddie had done was recreated by Mr. Bynes. He was also nude, sans a bright red wig. When Gabe saw the unmistakable stitches of an open chest surgery, he became paralyzed with terror.
“Look at what you’ve done to our precious pictures!” the voice screamed behind him.
Gabe couldn’t move his body, but he was able to turn his head. “Mr. Bynes…Please…”
Harrison Bynes stood over Gabe. His eyes were intense and filled with bright veins. His cheeks were red, almost the same shade as the wig atop his head. “You really shouldn’t mess with other people’s keepsakes,” he said, brandishing his knife. “Pictures are irreplaceable, you know.”
Thor Albarado is entering his final year at Central Washington University, majoring in Creative and Professional writing. He resides in the Pacific Northwest and is enthusiastically looking forward to starting his rejection letter collection.
Image by Eric Kim