The Keepsaker by David Batteiger

The Keepsaker
David Batteiger

Emily stood tip-toe on a wobbly stool, fingertips grazing the edge of something at the back of a high, dusty shelf. Straining further, the stool tilting on two legs, she urged the object closer. Her fingers wrapped around it and pulled a deteriorated cardboard shoebox into sight. A gentle smile crossed her face as she carefully removed it from the shelf. The sides of the box collapsed in her hands, sending a rain of old photographs to the floor.

Damn it.” She clambered off the stool and rubbed her forehead with one hand as she looked at the mess. She let out a long breath, then sank to the floor, raking the pictures into a pile.

I wasn’t ready for this. A tear welled up in the corner one eye and she smeared it away with the palm of her hand. She picked up a photo of her grandfather leaning against an old fence post, a youthful, cocky smile painted on his face. I can’t lose you too.

Memories of fire and thick black smoke pouring from windows flooded over her. She closed her eyes. Sirens wailed and red lights strobed in her mind as if it had just happened yesterday, not thirteen years ago. Grandpa, don’t leave me alone. I need you now as much as I did then. Mom…Dad…they’re gone, the fire took everything. You’re all I have left. She wrapped her arms around herself, remembering his warm hug that night. He promised to take care of her, to let her live with him, then held her all night as she cried herself to sleep. But now, with the stroke … I guess it’s my turn to take care of you. Emily sniffled then brushed frazzled strands of hair back from her face and returned to her work.

As she scooped the curled, worn black-and-white photographs of her grandparents back into the tattered remains of the box, her eyes fell on one and she paused. Her grandfather stood tall and proud in a military uniform with an arm behind two young Indian girls. So handsome in that uniform. The British army, I think that’s what grandmother said, and something about the partition of India. I wonder why he never talked about his time there.

Emily imagined the girls’ saris were vibrant shades of blue or orange, even though in this image they were muted grays. Bracelets and necklaces were draped over each small frame, making them look like tiny exotic princesses. The one on the left was taller by several inches. Her grandfather wore a broad, handsome smile, but as Emily focused more closely, she realized that the girls were rigid and distant. Why do they look so stiff, like they want to run away? Curiosity blossomed in the back of her mind. The taller girl wore a look of defiance, chin thrust forward, hands clenched into tight fists. The shorter one’s shoulders slumped, her eyes cast to the ground, a strange birthmark prominent on her cheek.

Written in pencil on the back was a single word “Lahore” next to a date – August 3rd, 1947. Perplexed, she turned the photo over and studied the girls again, but the longer she stared at those adolescent eyes, the more uneasy she felt.

###

The thick smell of antiseptic mingled with occasional whiffs of liniment in the air. Emily wrinkled her nose and held her breath for a moment. This facility was going to be her new normal, she needed to accept that for her grandfather’s sake.

Why do old people’s homes always have to be so hot? Emily tugged at the collar of her shirt as she entered her grandfather’s room. Most of his things had to be moved into storage, but the scent of rich cedar from an old trunk dispelled some of the aroma of this place. She sat down next to him and breathed in a hint of his spiced cologne that clung the sweater he wore.

Grandpa,” she said, gently running fingers along his forearm. “I brought some pictures. I thought maybe we could put a few up on the mirror or around the room?”

He didn’t respond.

Emily picked a few photos out of the box and held them up, one at a time.

I love this one of you next to great-grandma. And that cute little stuffed bear. What was his name?” Emily looked into her grandfather’s eyes for a hint of recognition. Nothing.

How about these with grandma? Here you two are on the boardwalk. Where was it again? Atlantic City?” She scanned his face. “I love the fedora. Oh, and that pocket watch. Didn’t you lose it at the beach?” The corners of her mouth turned up as she recalled her grandmother telling her the story. She looked at him, but his placid expression didn’t waver.

Then the picture of him with the two Indian girls emerged.

And here you are in uniform…so dashing.”

She brought it up to his eye level and gasped as his eyes followed it. A finger on his right hand twitched and she could hear the faintest of murmurs wheeze from his lips.

Grandpa?” Emily set the picture aside and met his eyes. For one fleeting second, she could see life there.

Deep—” His voice was a ragged whisper. Emily tilted her ear to his dry lips. “Deepika.”

Emily pulled back, eyes scanning his face, about to call for one of the nurses, but the light was gone. His expression had turned vacant again.

###

Emily spent weeks trying to learn more about the mysterious girls in the photograph and the name “Deepika”. She found Lahore was a town near the border of where Pakistan and India split. The date on the picture was only a few weeks before the countries had divided and Emily read in horror of the violence and massive refugee migration that resulted. She reasoned that was why he’d never spoken of it.

She’d scoured other boxes from her grandfather’s house, finding no other evidence of his time there. Finally, she posted the picture on her social media, hoping for someone help her solve the puzzle. The message that came in response elated her. A woman who’d lived in Lahore as a young girl wanted to meet and said she might be able to help identify the two girls.

What am I doing here? I feel like an idiot. A fortune teller, really?

Emily shifted uncomfortably on a sofa that smelled of curry, her grandfather next to her in a wheelchair.  She hadn’t realized the woman who’d reached out was a self-proclaimed psychic until they’d arrived at the address.

A haze of peculiar incense danced among candlelight like a pungent fog. A menagerie of figurines and oddities littered tables in the cramped room. Mysterious spices and dried plants lined the shelves, labels unreadable in the dim light.

A veiled woman swept into the room. Shiny, golden bangles gathered along both wrists and clinked musically as she moved.

Ugh, here we go. Emily rolled her eyes.

The woman’s features were shadowed, but there was a fierceness in her brown eyes. Her withered, caramel-colored skin stretched over bony fingers that spoke of her age.

Emily’s voice cracked as she spoke, “Your message said you can help with this picture.”

The woman took the photograph. She held it for a long moment, her finger tracing the faces of the girls.

Yes, I was there during this time. But you are not here to discuss my country’s turmoil.” She placed the photograph on the table, sliding it back towards Emily.

My grandfather—”

Had a stroke. He has not spoken for years. You miss his laugh and warm hugs.”

Anyone could have guessed that,” Emily scoffed, glancing towards her motionless grandfather. Some psychic.

There is no need for doubt, child. You were seven when he took you in. The smoke and flames took your home, but he gave you a new one. Your heart ached for your mother and father. He held you in kind, strong arms until you fell asleep that terrible night.”

Emily reached over and clutched her grandfather’s hand. You were the only thing that kept me whole.

The stroke took away everything from him. He was like a father to me, he deserves to remember better days. The picture is the only thing he seems to react to.”

You want him to have peace, to remember happier times before he crosses over.”

Can you help him?” Emily’s emotions threatened to bubble up like a balloon held underwater.

I can bring things from memory, keepsakes from his mind,” the old woman replied.

Emily nodded and rubbed a hand over her wet eyes.

Very well,” the woman said, then stood and turned to a shelf behind her. She faced Emily again holding a large wooden box. Tarnished brass hardware adorned rich, worn wood. Emily couldn’t guess how old it was, but it looked ancient.

The old woman placed the box on her grandfather’s lap and positioned his hands against the sides.

Now child, open the box. Reach inside. His strongest memories, the ones that mean the most to him, will be easy to find.”

Emily peered into the empty box. Did something just move in there? You’re seeing things Emily. Swirling lines began to take shape. They looked silky and vaporous, like fog rolling over dark liquid.

The shifting mist greeted her trembling hands warmly as she reached inside. Her fingers wrapped around something soft and furry.

When the teddy bear emerged from the box, the old man shifted in his chair. My God, it can’t be…

I remember this bear,” she exclaimed to the old woman, “It’s in a picture of him when he was a boy.”

The woman nodded and motioned for Emily to continue. She reached inside the box again. This time her hands found something flat and metallic. A smooth, silver pocket watch emerged. Her grandfather’s arm moved, reaching for the watch. Confused, she looked toward the woman.

Look more closely, dear.”

Emily opened the face and read the inscription. “To Gerald. All my love, Eliza.”

That’s impossible. I remember the story of how he lost this watch at the beach a week after my grandmother gave it to him.”

She placed the watch in her grandfather’s outstretched hand and could see the corners of his lips turn up as his fingers tightened around the keepsake. It’s working…he’s finding his way back to me.

Eager now, Emily put her hands back into the box, but this time the air was cold and bracing. Within the frigid vapor, there was a heavy, solid object. She wrenched her hands free, a warm stream of blood running down her finger. A solid thud resounded as the object landed on the floor.

Placing the cut finger in her mouth and sucking on the wound, she bent down to pick up the keepsake–a long, curved steel blade.

What’s this on the blade? Is that…is that blood? Before she could decide, her grandfather began to sway in his chair, his face contorted into deranged excitement, thin lips twisting into a psychotic smile around gapped teeth.

Deepika,” he said, voice not a whisper, but a rhythmic calling.

Emily cringed and dropped the knife. “Grandpa?!?”

The kind man she had known her whole life was absent from this face. The old lady was now beside her, holding her elbow and guiding her back to the box.

Emily resisted, but the woman’s grasp was more forceful than she expected. The air inside the box was angry and tore at her skin, heat blistering her flesh. She yanked herself free clutching scalded hands and stumbled backwards in the cramped room, sinking down next to the sofa.

Emily’s grandfather straightened in his wheelchair, his pale complexion melting away to an evil, energetic hue. He plucked the photograph from the table, jaw clenched as he studied it.

Deepika,” he said, his tone strong and clear.

Staring at the picture, he reached into the box himself this time. His hand emerged, unscathed, but holding a glistening mass of spongy muscle. He laughed gleefully as he held the heart up, blood streaming down his fingers.  

The Keepsaker darted across the room with catlike swiftness that didn’t fit her age. She snatched the knife from the floor and stood in front of the old man, his face still feverish with sinister energy. Emily tried to get up and rush to his aid, but the Keepsaker extended one hand her direction and Emily found she could no longer move. She watched in horror as the old woman’s other hand held the point of the blade to her grandfather’s chest.

Greetings raakshas. I have waited a very long time to see you again,” the woman said, her voice strong and deliberate. “I thought I might never find you, but this one keepsake you couldn’t part with.” She snatched the photograph from his hand, then peeled away her veil, revealing the deep, purple birthmark on her cheek.

You took my sister and left my family broken, just like you left our country.”  The Keepsaker drew the knife back and thrust it forward with the intensity of a storm.

Emily screamed and squeezed her eyes shut. A still silence descended on the room. She waited. Agonizing seconds peeled away, her heartbeat thundering in her ears.

I have to get up…have to look.

She held her breath and cracked one eye open. Her grandfather lay in a heap on the floor, motionless, his face a frozen mask of fear and agony. The Keepsaker and of the mementos were gone.

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