For 30 years, The Anniston Star has held a scary story contest called “Ghostwriters.” To celebrate the anniversary, we’re revisiting a favorite story from each of the past 30 years. From 1990, this is “Family Portrait” by Suzanne Boening of Jacksonville. Boening, a former English teacher, had moved to Jacksonville after retiring from the U.S. Army. She had been stationed at Fort McClellan.
By Suzanne Boening
Anne stood staring at the sign she had long since memorized:
HALLOWEEN PORTRAIT SPECIAL
BRING YOUR CHILD (UP TO 4)
TO CARMICHAEL'S ON 31ST
FOR FREE PICTURE
It was the same sign she had read just one year ago - the Halloween she had taken Jason to Carmichael's and lost him. Before this day was over, she would know whether that loss was to be forever. If she survived the attempt.
She had prepared carefully for her 3:30 appointment: the note to her aunt, her only remaining relative; the scrupulous attention to what, if it were larger, might be called her estate; the last-minute review of her plan, formed after months of study in dusty archives. Now, with a deep breath, she reached within herself for the courage she would need if she ever hoped to win back her son. She walked the half block to the portrait studio and entered without pausing.
In the months following the previous Halloween, Anne — first with her husband, then in the company of friends, still later with the police — had spent a great deal of time in Carmichael's. Yet now it looked almost as strange as it had one year ago when she and Jason came for their free portrait. The same shabby reception area, the same dusty benches, the same old-fashioned counter. Even Mr. Carmichael looked the same, a stooped old man with a dusty, lined face. He consulted the ledger open on the counter between them. “Mrs. Jackson?" he queried.
"No" said Anne. “I have the appointment, but I made it in the name of a friend.”
The old man leaned closer, and his eyes widened in recognition and something else — fear? guilt?
"You!" he hissed. "Back here? The police promised me you would never bother me again. The sergeant told me; he said, “Put your mind at rest Carmichael; the loony lady won't bother you anymore. After her husband died, and she spent those two months in the home, she left town. We won't see her again.’”
Anne stepped back from the counter, and did her best to look as normal, as reassuring, as possible. “Mr. Carmichael, I'm not here to accuse you, not here to threaten you. I no longer blame you for Jason's disappearance. You see, I now know that all you did was take his picture using a special old camera and some very special film. And I know who gave you that film, Mr. Carmichael. I have no idea what he pays you for your part in this Halloween horror, but I suspect that's pretty special too."
Carmichael stooped even more, taking his eyes from Anne and staring at the ledger book in front of him. “Mrs. Anderson," he whispered, "please go away. I can't help you.” More softly, "No one can help you." And softer still, "No one can help me."
Anne stepped forward and waited for his eyes to meet hers again. "Mr. Carmichael, all I'm asking you to do is to take my picture with the special camera, the one you told Jason was ‘just for little boys like you.' Take my picture and use the special film."
This old man stared at her. "You don't know what you're asking! You can't mean to want that. Go away. I don't know what you're talking about." And be backed away from the counter.
"Please Mr. Carmichael," begged Anne. "I know exactly what I'm trying to do. I have no one left, no reason to care what happens to me. I know what I'm asking; I won't hold you responsible in any way. Please, please, I want to go looking for my son."
The jingle of bells over the door announced the entrance of a customer. It was a lady, accompanied by two children, a boy and a girl. With an apologetic smile at Anne she explained, “I came early to give the children time to sort of get used to the place, you know. They're kind of shy, like, and I don't want no tears like the last time." Anne turned back to Mr. Carmichael.
“All I ask is a chance — you're my only hope."
"There is no hope," answered Mr. Carmichael, “but I will take your picture. I'll do that much." And turning to the woman who had just entered, he raised his voice. “Just have a seat there; I'm taking this lady behind the backdrop and then I'll be back to do your portraits." And he led Anne behind the screen that partially blocked a small alcove. The latest customer, busy reassuring the two toddlers who threatened to cry at any moment, was barely aware of the sounds behind the screen - a chair scraping, the murmur of a voice giving instructions. Then came a flash of light. Then a long time of quiet.
Mr. Carmichael emerged, alone, from the screened alcove. His face was gray, his stoop more pronounced. But his impatient customer did not notice. He consulted his ledger. “Oh, yes, Mrs. Grant. Just bring the twins back in here, and we'll take a picture of them you'll never forget.”
As they entered the alcove, Mrs. Grant looked puzzled. “But what happened to that other lady? I didn't see her come out?” Mr. Carmichael smiled reassuringly. "You were busy with the children. Mrs." — he glanced at his ledger — "Jackson is gone. She just came in to complete a family portrait."