The Photo

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Other  |  House: Booksie Classic

A story of a woman and her tragedy, and how she rebuilds her life again around her dreams.

The Photo


Helen Riley was born in southern California and grew up in the '60s around the surf and the beaches. She loved music, especially the Beach Boys. She had all their records and played them loud to her father's annoyance, who bought the record player for her on her fifteenth birthday. She was a rather shy girl and had only one close friend she grew up with, Joan.
Helen and Joan were like chalk and cheese. Helen was the quiet one, Joan, well she liked to talk, but she was funny and made Helen laugh so the Riley's, Helen's parents didn't mind her being around quite often.
The girls often talked about their plans for the future. They would lay on the bed in Helen's room, listening to the record player on total volume and thinking about their plans for the future. Helen wanted to marry one day, have children, one girl, one boy, and a dog. Living in a lovely house not too far from the beach and shopping malls. Joan wanted none of that; she would travel the world and somehow get rich but didn't know how to do that just yet.

By the time they finished high school, all plans had changed. Reality had set in; they were in the real world and had to make choices that could change their whole lives. Helen chose college and journalism; Joan didn't want college and decided to go into the family real estate business. She was more of a street smart girl, would tell you straight what she thought, and wouldn't let anyone tell her what to do or push her around. She was taller by a few inches than Helen, had brown eyes, and wore her red hair short, boyish. Still, no one was game to tell her that.
They had grown into young women; Helen was around five foot four, blue eyes, long dark hair, which she kept in a ponytail, she was a beautiful girl. She avoided the Vietnam protests, drugs and didn't get talked into going to San Francisco and becoming a hippy. Instead, Helen had her sights set on becoming a journalist. Immediately after graduation, she started applying to newspapers, TV stations, and magazines for journalism positions. She got lucky when the local TV station was looking for someone to replace one of the reporters. She would be handling small events like flower shows, weddings, etc. Helen's on-camera reporting of these events went down well with the station manager, and it wasn't long before she was assigned to more serious reporting.


David was three years older than Helen. Born in San Diego to a working-class family, lived at home, of average height, around five foot ten, blue eyes, fair bleached hair from his love of surfing, and spending most of his spare time on his surfboard. He wasn't interested much in high school; he liked working with his hands, so he dropped out after a few years and went into carpentry. David's father was friends with a builder who agreed to give David a try, it worked out fine for him, much to his mother's disappointment. She wanted a doctor for a son, not a carpenter.


Their meeting was by pure chance. Two years into her job at the station, Helen was assigned a story on a new housing development in the Imperial Beach area. As she pulled into the development, David was standing there looking over some housing plans. Helen took him for the site's boss so she pulled into the driveway where he was working. David looked up and recognized her straight away from television. She got out of the car and approached him. He didn't say anything and played along as she started the interview about the building work being done in the area. Just then, the real boss turned up and spoiled the whole thing for him. Helen was quite annoyed with this but liked his cheekiness and found him quite attractive. At first glance, David was taken with Helen and thought she was much prettier in person than on the TV screen. After her interview, he didn't waste much time to apologize for the mix-up and make up for it with lunch at the little cafe not far from the job. Helen accepted his apology and agreed to lunch. She was taken by his blue eyes and the blond hair surfie look and agreed on a date when he asked her out over lunch.

Twelve months of dating and meeting each other's parents went well; Joan even gave him her approval, he's the one for you Hel, as Joan always called her, you two are a perfect match. A few months later, after dinner one night, David suggested a walk on the beach, so they drove to a spot he liked to go surfing, got out of the car, and started walking in the sand. When they were up the beach a little, David turned to Helen and began to propose, but Helen had already said yes before he could finish. They were married in May 1970; Joan was asked to be the bride's maid and couldn't have been happier.

In May 1973, Anne was born, then Lucy in April 75, and little Lilly in June 78. By this time, David had become a licensed builder. With help from Joan's real estate knowledge, they had managed to find and buy a fixer-upper in Alabama Street North Park, not too far from San Diego's famous zoo. 

On Monday, September 25th, Helen was having her morning coffee; it was 8.55am Lilly was just a few months old. Helen's routine since having Lilly has changed. She starts work at 10.00am now, giving her time to have some breakfast and coffee, get the two younger girls ready and drive them to David's mother's home for the day; meanwhile, David took Anne to school on the way to work. Helen was just about to have a sip of coffee when she stopped. The silence of the morning was suddenly broken by the raw of aircraft jet engines. The explosion was terrifying; the sound was something you could never forget, a sound that could only mean death. She didn't know at the time, but flight PSA 182 with 140 passengers and crew on board had collided with a Cessna aircraft. Both had come down, crashing into houses less than a mile from where she was standing. Within minutes, there was the sound of sirens, police, fire trucks. Not long after, the phone rang, it was the TV station, on the other end was the station manager, he wanted Helen in as soon as possible. He explained what happened and that a crew had been dispatched to the crash area already. They would be relaying live from the scene. He wanted Helen on air back at the station, receiving the relay and doing commentary. That was a terrible day for San Diego, the loss of life from the two aircraft, the people on the ground in their homes. The pictures that came in from the crew were filtered and showed respect for the victims and victims' families. Helen saw the raw footage, which hugely affected her, but she was a professional and had to keep going. She was commended on her commentary, which gave her a high standing in the eyes of the station's management. The damage and loss of life were tremendous that day, and Helen felt for all the families involved in the tragedy and the suffering they were going through. Little did she know that she would be going through a tragedy of her own two years from now.

1980 came around, Anne was now seven and at school, the two youngest, Lucy, almost five, and Lilly, just two years old, were in child care. David would pick up the girls from school and child care in the afternoon on the way home from work. Helen felt guilty, putting so much into her career; her family life was starting to suffer because of this. She was doing long hours, the anchor on the nightly news now. Having to cover stories that needed someone with her experience to handle, which came in at unpredictable hours that made it hard on David and the girls.


Helen decided, this weekend, to spend some time with David and the girls and organized a picnic in the park, not far from home. The girls loved this place with plenty of grassy lawns, ducks in the pond, and picnic areas with benches. Helen took her camera; she thought of herself as a bit of a photographer, always looking for a photo opportunity with the wildlife. So after lunch, Helen walked down to the pond to get some shots of the ducks and birds. She returned to the girls; they were playing and laughing with their father. It was a perfect shot; she couldn't resist taking a photo.

A week later, the photos were back; looking through them, she came across the one of them playing; it was a great shot. Anne loved the photo; she wanted to buy a frame out of her own pocket money for it. So she went to the little gift store on the corner just up from their house. When she returned, Helen couldn't help but laugh. It was a little large for the 6" x4" photo, also plastic and yellow. Anne's pocket money was a little low, so she had to forget about the polished wooden one she had her eyes on. Anyway, she said the yellow was like sunshine around the photo, so Helen sat it on the mantle in full view.


David had established a fine reputation as a builder; he worked mainly on building homes and had a crew supplied with plenty of work in the local area. He kept his business as local as possible to be able to pick up the girls after school and child care. They just loved riding in Daddy's work truck every day, but this day David had a meeting with his bank manager about an expansion of his business into other areas of construction and still stay as close as possible for the girls. So he finished work early, went home, got the family car, the small blue sedan, and headed to the meeting. He'll have plenty of time to pick up the girls after the meeting, they will be disappointed not to have a ride in the work truck, but ice cream will make up for that.

In a rundown apartment close to town, Jimmy woke with a throbbing headache after a heavy night of drinking. He had slept in and was late for work, he rang his boss with some bullshit story, but the boss got in first, "don't bother with the BS, Jimmy, you're through this time, buddy." Jimmy was feeling sick in the stomach from what he had just heard. He couldn't believe how his life had turned to crap. His boy Stevie is the only good thing in his life at the moment, only four months old but taken from him too. Jimmy's wife fled to her mother's home because of his drinking and abusive behavior and took young Stevie with her.

It was early, but he needed a drink, so he dressed, grabbed the keys to his red F100 pickup, and drove straight to 'Harry's. This was his usual drinking hole, and he needed to drink away some of this shitty day. Three-thirty in the afternoon, Harry refused to serve him any more alcohol and offered to call a cab. Jimmy didn't take it too well and abused Harry, grabbed his keys to the pickup, and stormed out.


Sergeant O'Brien had twenty-five years on the job and had never seen anything as bad as this. When he arrived on the scene, the fire and rescue were already there at this stage. O'Brien could see that the red pickup had lost control coming around the corner on the wrong side of the road and hit the small blue sedan head-on. He saw the pickup driver had penetrated the windshield and died at the scene before he had arrived, identified as James (Jimmy) Wells. Approaching the sedan, he couldn't believe what he saw. The male driver was already dead, slumped behind the wheel. In the back seat of the wreckage was a sight O'Brien will never forget. He had girls of his own, and one was twenty now, married and having a baby soon. That's something the three young girls in the back of the twisted wreck would never experience, and that's when tears welled in the eyes of that tough Sargent.

No one could have survived, that was the last of the terrible news the police Sargent delivered to Helen that day. She stood there, unable to move or understand anything said to her after that moment. Helen's parents arrived a short time after being informed. They, too, had to deal with this, but Helen came first. Finally, the family Doctor arrived and sedated Helen, and she was put to bed. The Rileys stayed there that night; they didn't sleep. They talked all night and tried to make sense of what had just happened, but they couldn't.

Joan was in London when she got the phone call from David's father, both parents of Davids were struggling with what had just happened, but he knew he had to call Joan. She would be the most helpful for Helen at this moment. So Joan got on the first flight she could get from London; she knew it would be a long and agonizing trip back home.
Joan stayed with Helen after the accident, took care of all the arrangements, and covered the cost of the funerals held for David and the girls simultaneously. Joan had now taken over the real estate business from her parents and built it into quite a moneymaker. So she could easily look after her friend's expenses at this tragic time. Now, a week after the funeral and cremation, the ashes had arrived. Helen had already decided where they were going. Joan helped with council arrangements to plant a tree, and the ashers placed under that tree, close to the picnic spot in the park, they enjoyed so much.


The family of both David and Helen kept close to her over the next eighteen months, but they were worried. She didn't show interest in anything anymore. The work she was doing now at the station was low profile, had no on-camera time, and of little interest to her.
Joan suggested returning to college; mixing with young people may help. Pick a subject and work towards a new career to try and move on. Helen surprised Joan when she agreed and liked the idea, then enrolled in a subject of great interest to her in high school, science.

The first day at college Helen was a bundle of nerves. She didn't know what to expect. It had been so long, and being so much older than the other students didn't help. But, just then, she was recognized by one of the staff, who then introduced her to many of the students doing the same degree. That made her feel so much more at ease.

The three years seemed to fly, and graduation came around too quick. Helen enjoyed the company of all the young people around her and was sad it was all ending. That's when the idea came to her to use her science degree and teach. This would be a great way to stay in the same environment she has enjoyed for the last three years. So that is the way she went, teaching high school science in the North Park high school not too far from home.

Helen felt like she had found her calling. Working with all the young minds kept her mind sharp, and it was so rewarding as a teacher to see them absorbing so much of what she was teaching. But, of course, some needed help more than others, and she was always there for them. Some students came from broken families, some from poorer and less educated family backgrounds. Still, Helen would make sure they all got the opportunity of a good knowledge of science.


Being around all these young adults made it easier for Helen to make it through the day, but later at home, she wasn't far from the memory of David and the girls. The little photo in the yellow plastic frame was still in place on the mantle. Some nights, she would dream she was there, watching the girls playing with their dad in the park, just like in that photo. The thought of maybe having that dream was the only reason she went to bed some nights.


It was now 1995; eleven years had passed since Helen first started teaching. Many students had passed through her classroom and successfully started their own careers. A young man, who stood out from the others, was Steven; he was fifteen and showed signs of being an exceptionally gifted student. He received high grades in all school subjects and excelled in science. Helen had helped many students from poorer families and thought Steven may be one of them. She enquired into his welfare and background to ensure that he would have the best opportunity for a college education with his high school marks. What Helen had found saddened her. He came from a broken home; he was only a baby when his father was killed, then his mother died from an overdose when he was only five. His grandmother was then left to raise him. She could barely get by with what she earned, house cleaning and working nightshift in a cafe. Still, she wanted a better life for her grandson than his alcoholic father and drug-addicted mother had. Helen had a meeting with Steven's grandmother, who was delighted to have someone taking an interest in his welfare. The grandmother told the story of her daughter, Steven's mother, who walked out of his life when he was only two years old. Nothing was heard of her until the police came to the door three years later with the news of her death from a drug overdose.

Joan still kept in touch and popped in now and again, but the visits were getting less frequent with work, travel, and her divorce. On this visit, Helen told Joan of her dreams, how she felt about them and how they helped her through the nights they came to her. Joan listened while looking at the photo on the mantle, feeling sad for the loss of those three beautiful little girls. But, at the same time, she couldn't help but notice a pink birthday card standing upright next to the photo. It read 'Happy 13th Birthday'. When Joan asked about the girl it was for, Helen acted a little strange and quickly replied that the card was for one of her students. Joan didn't think much of it and let it go at that, but did note Helen's unusual reaction to the question. After saying goodbye to Joan, Helen quickly picked up the birthday card and took it to her bedroom. In the dresser draw was a shoebox; in the box were three stacks of birthday cards, one for Anne, one for Lucy, and one for Lilly. Then with tears in her eyes, Helen gave the card a kiss and said softly, happy birthday Lilly, and placed it on a stack inside the box.


Helen worked hard with Steven over the next three years of high school, they built up a close friendship, Helen became a mother figure to him and teacher. Finally, the hard work paid off. Steven graduated and received a scholarship to UCLA to study science. Helen played a big part in helping him receive that scholarship, writing recommendations, including how he overcame the family hardships to eventually go on to graduate with honors.

Helen missed Steven when he left for college, they had become close over the years, and his presence in her life replaced some of the terrible hurt she still had for her own family. She kept in touch with him all the time he was there. He was doing great and coming home as often as he could, but his studies kept him busy, and he had met a girl, Patrisher, and things were getting serious between them.


College was hard but it had gone quick; he had taken on a vast amount and achieved it. This month, he will be graduating with a doctoral degree in biomedical science, majoring in neurobiology and neurosciences, Dr. Steven Wells.


When Steven left for college Helen's dreams became more frequent. She found herself thinking of the girls more often during the day as well. Lucy's birthday was coming up, and she needs to buy a card to place on the mantle beside the photo. The following day she'll remove it and place in the shoebox alongside the others. On the day of Lucy's birthday, she couldn't help but think how Lucy would look now at age twenty-three, a beautiful young woman, she thought. That night, she lay thinking of Lucy, trying to build an image of how she would look in 1998. Helen did this many times before over the years, creating a mental picture of what they would look like, the day of their birthday. It made her feel like they were still there, somewhere, growing up with her. In the dream that night, Lucy would be there, looking just like she pictured her. Helen lived for her dreams, whenever they came, she would always be in the same place, the same park they had picnicked in, but the girls and David couldn't see her. She would reach out for them, touch or hug them, but she would always stay a distance away, invisible to them, which hurt the most.


As the years passed, little reminders of her past life with David would show up. Like a clip on TV about the area of Imperial Beach where they first met or the thirty-year memorial for the victims of flight PSA 182. One morning she picked up the paper and read of the passing of one of San Diego's finest, retired police Sargent Michael O'Brien. Much loved, husband, father, and grandfather. When she read that, the memory of him standing in her front doorway that day of the accident came flooding back. She had to steady herself. She hadn't thought of that moment all this time; it was locked away, but this news let it out to relive again. There were good memories too, like all the years teaching, Steven's marriage to Patrisher, and their two boys, Stevey and John, her best friend Joan, always there for her. All these memories were her life, and she couldn't change any of them if she tried. At seventy years of age and retired from teaching when turning sixty-five,

Helen mainly kept busy with gardening, reading, and some volunteer work downtown with the homeless. Helen kept healthy with some exercise and walking, all seemed fine, but she knew it wasn't, some days she was having trouble remembering things, words and names of friends that she had known for years, she was getting scared, scared for her memories and dreams of David and the girls, that was all she has left of her family, and she doesn't want to lose that. She knows she doesn't have much time to do something about it.


Steven was now head of research at a leading pharmaceutical company in Los Angeles. He is currently working on a new drug and its effects on memory loss of Alzheimer's sufferers; Helen knows this and turns to him for help.


The drug Steven is working on is still in the experimental stage and has not been approved for human trials. When approved, it will be used to try and slow the deterioration of the part of the brain that holds the long-term memories. Steven believes that Alzheimer's sufferers, even tho they have lost the ability to talk and remember faces and names, may still be able to hold on to some of those memories of their lives and relive them over and over before eventually the disease finally wins.


The meeting with Steven didn't go well. Helen had traveled to Los Angeles to see him. He had to explain that the drug was not approved for trial on humans at this stage and could not possibly prescribe its use. Helen, now diagnosed with the disease and with memory loss and confusion, she lashed out at Steven. She could see before her the son of the man that took her family away from her. He would never know that, and Helen would never tell him about his worthless drunken father and the accident that destroyed her family. Now that man's son will not help save the only thing she has left of them, her memories and dreams. She had never become so angry towards him like this before, and he couldn't understand. He didn't know the whole story of their relationship, he could only see how desperate she was, but he couldn't help her, no matter how much he wanted to.


Joan found out about Helen's condition from Steven. He recommended she see her as soon as possible. Steven explained how upset Helen was on that last visit and was worried she may need help at home from now on. Joan didn't waste any time, she was on the other side of the country, in New York, but that didn't matter; Helen needed her. When Joan arrived, she could see that Helen did need help. The house was not in a very good state, also with little food in the pantry and fridge, she knew she had arrived just in time. Some help was arranged for the cleaning, and Joan decided to stay on to cook and look after Helen's personal needs as long as she could. When she couldn't cope anymore, there would have to be some nursing assistance arranged for her. This seemed to work fine for the first six months, but it was getting hard for Joan to communicate with Helen. Just to get simple instructions across was time-consuming. With no extra help, it was getting beyond her, and she thought it was close to the time she needed help.


Steven kept in touch with Joan and kept her up to date on the drug he was waiting for approval on. Helen signed a release sometime before her condition deteriorated to this level, giving permission for Steven to start the testing soon as it had been approved.
Joan was in the kitchen; it was early, around 7.30am, when Helen walked out and said good morning. Joan just looked at her with wide eyes and couldn't believe what she had heard, Helen had not spoken for a few weeks, and it was hard to understand her when she did try, but this was very clear and like her old self. Then, just at that moment, Joan's joy of hearing her friend's voice turned to panic as Helen collapsed onto the kitchen floor. Joan didn't know at the time, but Helen had just suffered a significant ischemic stroke.
The hospital's ER was very busy, but they got Helen into intensive care quickly; she laid there with the heart monitor connected and showing a steady beat.


Joan had seen Helen to bed the night before, and she seemed fine. They watched television for a little while, but she was tired and wanted to go to bed. Helen fell into a deep sleep; the dreams were coming back but were confusing and upsetting her during the night, but when she woke in the morning, everything seemed fine, in fact, everything was very clear to her. Seemed as if all her thoughts had realigned, and she was herself again, so she got dressed, walked to the kitchen, saw Joan standing there, said good morning, and then everything went black.


Joan followed the ambulance to the hospital and was waiting outside the ICU for news of Helen's condition, in the meantime, she had rung Steven and explained what had happened and how serious it may be for Helen. Steven was shaken by the news and wanted to drive down from LA. Still, Joan insisted he stay there, and she would call as soon as more information became available.


Steven couldn't get Helen out of his head, he was remembering that day of the meeting and how upset she was with him, but he didn't know what he had done to get her like that. The drug was what she had insisted on, and he knew her condition was getting worse. Still, now with this stroke, he feels some of the blame and knows he will have to do something for this woman, who is responsible for making him who he is today, the person that stepped in and took over the roll of a mother that he never had.


Three days had passed, Joan had kept Steven up to date on Helen's health, she had been moved to a hospital room to herself, still attached to the monitor and being fed by an I.V., she had gone under multiple tests which were still being assessed. Still, she did show some signs of a recovery with drifting in and out of consciousness.
Joan brought some personal items from home for Helen's room, familiar things she thought may help her recovery. Like the girl's three little pink teddy bears, each had their name on, bought by David the day they were born, the girl's ribbons, hair bands, and a box she kept in a drawer in her bedroom, full of birthday cards. She also brought the little photo in the yellow frame, which she placed on the small stainless steel cupboard alongside her bed.


In the three days that followed the phone call from Joan, informing him of the stroke, Steven had been hard at work getting permission to use the drug he had been working on and carry out Helen's wishers to try and help her keep and recall the memories she cherished so much. His hard work was not in vain as permission came through on the third day, so he was on his way to the San Diego Hospital to start Helen on a course of that drug as soon as she recovered and was well enough.


The darkness Helen experienced from the stroke was now replaced by occasional flashes of light and sound. She could hear voices she recognized one as her friend Joan, but the others were strangers to her. She was now showing some promising signs of recovery, and the doctors seemed to be happy with the way things were going at the moment. With that news, Joan decided to go to the hospital a little later today. Steven was coming down and would pick her up from Helen's house, and they would go together. Just as Joan sat down to have her coffee, the phone rang. Helen's doctor was on the other end, and it was not good news. There's been another stroke, and it looks worse than the first one. He advised her to come to the hospital as soon as possible. Joan called Steven to let him know the bad news and that she would get a cab and meet him there. When Joan entered Helen's room, the first thing she did was check the monitor was still beeping, and it was, she took a deep breath, walked over to Helen, stroked her hair, and sat down on the chair next to the bed.


The flashers of light and sound Helen experienced were replaced by dream-like visions of people and places in her past. Faces appeared and came towards her. They were the faces she had pictured of Anne, Lucy, and Lilly on their birthdays every year. She had created memories from those moments that were just make-believe. The faces had vanished now, and she was looking at a pond, she knew this place, it was in the dream she had a thousand times, but something seemed different in this dream. The colorful ducks in the pond, the sky was blue, the trees were green, she had never seen color in the dream before. She started to walk up the slope to where David and the girls were playing. There they were, playing and laughing, she reached down for her camera to take the photo, but the camera wasn't there, she tried to find it and saw her hand, the skin was smooth, this was not the hand of an old woman. Just then there was a scream, she looked up, it was the girls running towards her and yelling, Mummy! Mummy! Where have you been? Helen turned to where David was sitting but now walking towards her with his hand reaching out for hers. You can see me, you can see me, she cried.


Joan raised her head quickly and turned to the monitor. The beeps had stopped and were replaced by a continuous high-pitched sound and red flat line. She knew her friend was gone, and no one could do anything to help her. Joan lent over Helen, stroked her hair, and kissed her on the forehead, then said softly, " Good-bye, my sweet friend."
Steven arrived just after and was visibly upset by what had just happened, but Joan reassured him Helen was in a better place now, and he should feel happy for her. Those few words made him feel much better, he said his goodbye to Helen, and then they both left.
That afternoon a young orderly came into the room to pack up Helen's possessions in a cardboard box. There were nightgowns, three little teddy bears and a box of birthday cards, as he looked up from packing, he saw the photo on the bedside cupboard. The light from the window shone on the back of the frame, and made it glow just like sunshine. He picked it up, looked at it and smiled, he saw a father sitting on a bench in a park, watching his three young daughters laughing and playing with their mother.

He then placed it face down in the box and closed the lid.




Post Script

Helen's ashes were placed under the tree in the park alongside David and the girls.

Joan returned to her home in New York.

Steven returned to his Alzheimer research in L.A

Helen's house was sold and the money went to Steven's research at Helen's request.

Submitted: January 18, 2022

© Copyright 2022 Bernie Fay. All rights reserved.

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Add Your Comments:



That would make a good audiobook

Thu, March 3rd, 2022 2:16am


Thank you for your comment, working on my next short story, so keep checking back.

Wed, March 2nd, 2022 7:21pm


You’re welcome I will

Thu, March 3rd, 2022 4:25am


You’re welcome I will

Thu, March 3rd, 2022 4:26am

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